Developments in the Vaccination Debate

An influential study linking autism to vaccinations is now debunked as fraudulent. Immunization experts in Houston say that's great news for physicians. But they say it may not do much to change the minds of people who are already opposed to vaccines. Laurie Johnson reports.

The Wakefield Study, published in 1998, showed a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism. The conclusion drawn was that the vaccine actually caused autism in eight out of the 12 children in the study.

"It has been extraordinarily damaging. The fear that it caused in parents was extreme."

That's Anna Dragsbaek, president and CEO of the Immunization Partnership here in Houston. A new report issued by the British Medical Journal shows the data in the Wakefield study was not simply flawed — but was fraud. The study's author altered medical records in order to draw the connection between vaccines and autism. Dragsbaek says no other study has ever been able to replicate those findings.

"This is kind of the last nail in the coffin of this concept that vaccines cause autism. And this should really put those parents minds at ease. I think there's always going to be people out there that want to believe that the study was correct and I think that's because we all want answers to the questions that we have in our lives. And parents of children who have autism have a big question — why? Why did this happen to my child? And the fact is that we still don't know."

That uncertainty about the cause of autism will continue to color the vaccination debate. Dr. Carol Baker is executive director of the Center for Vaccine Awareness and Research at Texas Children's Hospital. She says parents who have already decided to refuse vaccines aren't likely to change their minds now.

"The whole alarm, concern, fear about vaccine safety is still there."

Baker says studies show the most likely people to refuse vaccines are middle to upper-class well-educated parents. And she says she doesn't foresee that changing even though the Wakefield study has been debunked.

"The anti-vaccine voice is very articulate, very well-funded and is doing a good job of keeping the concern there. So my job as a physician, and all physicians, is to continue to educate and try to give parents information because there's a lot of fear out there."

It's difficult to determine exactly how many parents refuse to vaccinate their children. What we do know is that Texas ranks well down the list at 31st in the nation for childhood vaccination rates.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...