From the Mind of Dr. Burnett-Brown

The Causes of Autism: Genetics or Vaccines?

Despite numerous studies disproving the 1998 published hypothesis proposing a linkage between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, thousands of parents each year make the potentially fatal mistake of not having their children vaccinated for these deadly diseases.

Broken Background 

The original hypothesis was formed due to the correlation of gastrointestinal disorders of children exposed in-utero to the rubella virus (commonly called German measles) wherein the virus embeds in the lining of the stomach. Originally these studies were conducted to study the prevalence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in some children, and through these studies, it was found that a significant number of children with IBS also were on the autistic spectrum.

It has been more than a half-century since doctors first realized the linkage between mental retardation and physical deformities, and while based upon earlier studies there is evidence to support there is a causal relationship between pregnant mothers exposed to rubella and autism, there is no hard evidence to support that children who are vaccinated are at risk for autism.

It would be reasonable to suggest in fact, that children who contract the rubella virus are more likely to develop autism than those who are vaccinated. The 1998 study has since caused panic among parents of small children already vaccinated, and those who are in the position of deciding whether or not to vaccinate. Each year researchers publish new studies that discount this hypothesis, medical doctors caution parents, and yet the irrational fear persists.

The question that continues to puzzle doctors and researchers is why the persistent fear of vaccines in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One simple answer to this is that the initial hypothesis was published in 1998, following studies between 1992 and 1996 that significantly raised awareness of autism in the medical and public sectors. Based on numerical data, it appeared in early research that autism was something that was suddenly occurring, however, the literature on the topic suggests that autism and knowledge of it fit the adage of the tree and the forest. In fact, prior to the release of the movie Rain Man in the late 1980s, most Americans had no idea of autism spectrum disorders.

Searching for Hope in All the Wrong Places

As with any mental disorder, there is an associated stigma, and of course, parents look for answers, some source to blame. Often that source is themselves, or rather their genetics. Mothers often take most of the blame and feel that surely the reason must fall on what they ate, or to what they exposed themselves to during the gestational period. It is a reasonable conclusion for laypeople to make that a woman’s exposure to rubella during pregnancy increases the chances of autism in an unborn child and that exposure to the vaccine would have the same effect. Reason itself seems to go out the window in that the child stands risks greater than autism if exposed to the full virus strain and contracts measles.

According to data collected by the CDC in the early 2000s – just following the 1998 published hypothesis – the number of reported cases of measles in the United States was in the mid-500s. The reports at that time were considered highly encouraging as measles has the potential to wipe out an entire community. However, since 2008 the rise in the incidents of measles has the CDC and other health communities extremely concerned. Reports suggest that the reason for this rise in measles cases is due to vaccine non-compliance. That parents, and especially mothers, have created almost a herd mentality in regard to refusal to have children vaccinated. The issue of non-compliance amongst these parents has the government gravely concerned, and not just the Surgeon General’s office or the CDC, but also the Department of Education. Vaccines are required for children’s entry into public as well as private school systems. Until recently there was only a small percentage of children waivered into school systems who were unvaccinated due to religious beliefs. Now that these conscienceless objectors to vaccines have created something akin to mass hysteria, the numbers are running to the point of uncontrollable. This is an issue that will keep the courts busy as parents claim the right to what goes into their children’s bodies. The U.S. Government and the CDC are placed in the unenviable position of having to state the cold hard facts that the scientifically unsupported risk of autism does not compare to the pandemic spread of measles.

In 2014, the CDC voiced concerns that vaccine noncompliance was occurring in staggering waves in the face of irrefutable evidence to support vaccines have the potential to prevent “322 million illnesses, 21 million hospitalizations, and 732,000 deaths during the lifetime” of children born between 1994-2013. The preponderance of current research disavows any claims and denies any empirical evidence to support a connection between preventive vaccines and autism spectrum disorders.

Heeding and Weeding (out) Warnings

Current research supports that genetics as well as environmental factors play a role in autism spectrum disorders. Research surrounding autism spectrum disorders has focused much of its attention on not only the potential causes of these disorders but also what are not factors. One of the reasons for this, as was addressed previously, there is much alarm regarding the number of parents electing to not have their younger children vaccinated each year.

When children go to daycare, school, or even theme parks unvaccinated, they are not only in danger themselves, but if they have already been exposed to measles or mumps, they are placing other children in danger. 17,000 parents claimed a “philosophic exemption” from vaccines in the years leading up to 2014, and in that year, there were 23 measles outbreaks, which was an increase of 12 from 2013. What is most astounding is that in 1994 there were 900 cases, and by the year 2000 measles had been eliminated as a health threat in the United States.

It is important that new parents become educated about the facts regarding what is tantamount to Chicken Little. For the past 15 years, parents have run amok telling other parents the sky is falling and their only evidence is that a piece of it hit them on the head in 1998. The fact that since then every scientist who has studied the sky has said, “There is no empirical evidence to suggest the sky is falling,” has been ignored. In this analogy, basically, what happens is people are running off the cliffs in fear of something that has not been proven a fact.

There is much yet to be studied in regard to autism spectrum disorders. There is a vast range of the disorder, from individuals who are mildly intellectually challenged, to those who seem profoundly so and almost catatonic, to still others who are of almost genius-like intelligence. There are far too many children in the education system with forms of autism, and teachers who do not know how to teach them for further money and time to be wasted in proving what a significant amount of research has already disproven.

Rather than having the government or institutions funding still more money on what is akin to a dead horse, perhaps, money should be spent on making findings available to parents in clear and friendly language to which they can relate. Numerical data does not excite lay people. Qualitative narrative and anecdotal data do. Parents who have lost a child to measles have a much stronger story to tell than that of the CDC. Of those who suffered losses resulting from the 23 outbreaks in 2014, there are surely stories to be told. Of these outbreaks, some of these children surely belonged to parents who opted to not vaccinate. Their stories would be most powerful.

The Pied Piper was very successful in leading diseased rats and mice out of the village and saving the people from the plague. Science should be the Pied Piper, and science should be listened to in regard to autism spectrum disorders and their origins. The majority of the available research agrees that there is still much to be learned about what causes autism spectrum disorders; and also, on what is not the cause. Parents are hard-pressed to find anyone in the medical community to support their decision to not have their children vaccinated.

Parents who are making these decisions are not reading scientific journals. They are obsessing over message-board postings of other parents and allowing the irrationality of fear to overrule judgment. Each successive year following the 1998 hypothesis stating the suspected correlation between autism spectrum disorder and the MMR vaccine there has been research disproving the hypothesis and calling for a close of the subject, and to focus research on more productive aspects of the topic.


It is understandable that parents are fearful of anything that might cause their children harm. With that stated, the medical and scientific community must be trusted with their findings, or lack thereof regarding MMR vaccines and autism spectrum disorders. The courts do not have the time, nor the resources to hear all the cases that are sure to cost the courts millions. Parents need a reliable source for their information. Message board data is insufficient and leads to the spread of misinformation. Parents who are caught up in the fear and the hysteria can receive support and accurate information through supportive therapy. Parents can benefit from voicing their fears aloud in a safe, non-judgmental environment, where they can receive logic-driven feedback, support, and information.



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