Childhood diseases seem to be making a comeback in the United States, other Western countries, and around the world. Once thought to have been eradicated in some parts of the world, these diseases are reappearing in more and more places.
One reason for this is parental fear that vaccinations for these diseases might cause autism. That has resulted in children increasingly skipping or delaying vaccinations, despite doctors’ concerns that doing so will leave those children and the overall community at risk for preventable diseases.
A nationwide US survey found that more than 1 in 10 parents vaccinated their children outside of the recommended schedule developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 2 percent of parents in the study refused all vaccines for their children. However, many more than that expressed distrust of the official recommended vaccination schedule, and 13 percent reported using an alternative vaccine schedule, meaning they skipped or delayed vaccines. Since there seems to be an increase in these diseases in the west, Hearing International has begun to investigate the rationale for not immunizing children.
Why would a parent in the US or any other Western country deliberately expose their children to these diseases? What is the rationale for this “neglectful” practice? Mostly it is done out of love by misinformed parents who think there is more to fear from the immunization than from the disease. Many of these diseases have significant hearing loss as a consequence so audiologists need to understand the controversy and the REAL story.
At the root of most of the concern about vaccination is the chemical Thimerosal.
The Threat of Thimerosal
For most parents, the major cause for concern were some troubling articles about life-saving vaccines that contain Thimerosal. Thimerosal is a mercury-containing organic compound (an organomercurial), that since the 1930s has been widely used as a preservative in a number of biological and drug products, including many “childhood disease” vaccines. Its use is to help prevent potentially life threatening contamination with harmful microbes.
Over the past several years, because of an increasing awareness of the theoretical potential for neurotoxicity of even low levels of organomercurials and because of the growing number of vaccines containing thimerosal that have been added to the infant immunization schedule, concerns about thimerosal in vaccines and other products have been raised. Because of these concerns, the Food and Drug Administration has continued to work with vaccine manufacturers to reduce or eliminate thimerosal from vaccines.
The concern that the thimerosal in vaccines might cause autism was first presented in 1999 when CNN aired a program on which the parents of a three-year-old child stated that he had developed autism two weeks after receiving measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The program included the views of Stephanie Cave, M.D., a Louisiana physician who “specializes in treating autism” with diet and nutritional supplements suggesting that the vaccine was the cause of the autism. An American Academy of Pediatrics official explained why there was no reason to believe that a link exists between autism and vaccination, but the dramatic before-and-after CNN videotapes of the child probably had enough impact to persuade many parents to avoid having their children vaccinated. The program’s narrator stated there had been “a puzzling jump in the number of children being diagnosed with autism.” However, the number being diagnosed may reflect increased reporting of cases rather than an increase in actual incidence. Since then, You Tube has become full of videos that seem to offer a logical argument against vaccinating children.
In 2001, when the Institute of Medicine’s Immunization Safety Review Committee first examined the issue, there was little data available about exposure to thimerosal in vaccines among children who subsequently were recognized as being autistic. Thus, the Committee was unable to refute these claims with proof. By 2004, however, much more scientific data was available and the IOM Committee concluded that there was no association between vaccines and autism. While articles and organizations, such as the National Academies of Science, continue to suggest that vaccines are rarely the cause of these issues, some do not agree. That leads some parents to challenge traditional wisdom and their physicians’ recommendations to have their children vaccinated. The normal schedule for vaccinations can be found at many places online.
As audiologists, we need to support and encourage a traditional vaccination schedule for children, as this is a step toward reducing hearing loss worldwide. The link of vaccination to autism, at least at this point, has no basis in scientific research basis and is definitely not a reason to postpone or eliminate an immunization program.