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    House Studies Possible Link Between Autism, Vaccines

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    The hearing was so packed with autism and vaccine activists that it required two overflow rooms.

    The controversy on the subject began when British researcher Andrew Wakefield, MB, hypothesized in a 1998 piece in The Lancet that autism may be triggered by viruses in the MMR vaccines. Wakefield reiterated his findings for the hearing. And Vijendra Singh, PhD, a research professor at Utah State University, testified: "The onset of autism should no longer be regarded as merely a coincidence with the timing of the vaccinations."

    But other researchers and physicians said that subsequent studies have not established any such link. Charles Prober, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases, tells WebMD, "If people believe this en masse, then our vaccine programs will suffer substantially and there will be a resurgence in all the diseases we had so successfully controlled."

    Prober suggested that Burton's interest in autism is clouding his judgment. "His degree of objectivity is a little marred by the concern that he has, appropriately so, for his family members. Science is meant to be as objective as possible."

    Burton, for his part, sought to cast doubts on the objectivity of some of those who asserted that there was no vaccine-autism link. Paul Offit, MD, chief of infectious diseases at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, testified that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism. But Burton pointed out that Offit is paid by the drug firm Merck to educate physicians about vaccines. Merck manufactures the MMR vaccine.

    "There is nobody I know that does vaccine work that would want to hide or deny an association that has some plausibility," Prober tells WebMD. "The process of vaccine development, testing, licensure, and follow-up is an extremely complicated process that has probably more checks and balances than the government." For example, Prober said, the infant rotavirus vaccine was pulled swiftly from the market last year after safety problems were found.

    On the other hand, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group with serious concerns about current vaccine standards, maintains that the federal government may have ignored or concealed early data that could have kept that vaccine off the market.

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