Autism Debate May End Up Harming Children
April 28, 2000 (Washington) -- Dan Burton is an angry grandfather. His
grandson, Christian, is autistic. That means the boy has language difficulties
and engages in repetitive behavior. Remember the Dustin Hoffman character in
the movie "Rain Man"? That's what autism is.
Burton is angry because he believes that Christian's autism is related to
the vaccination he received for measles, mumps and rubella, known as the MMR
vaccine. Burton and his daughter, Christian's mother, say Christian's symptoms
began to develop only after he received the vaccination.
Burton's deep and understandable concern about the health of his grandson
would not be much of a story, except that Dan Burton happens to be a Republican
congressman from Indiana and he also happens to be chairman of a powerful
committee, the House Government Reform Committee, that has been holding
hearings on vaccine safety. Burton has become a one-man show in criticizing the
safety of vaccinations, and in doing so, he may actually cause harm to other
children by discouraging them from being properly vaccinated. He recently held
a public hearing and will hold another in May.
Mainstream scientists have found no evidence of any association between the
MMR vaccine and autism. The MMR vaccine is administered during a child's second
year. That's also when autism symptoms begin to appear. Parents, and
grandparents like Burton, might believe there is a link between the vaccine and
the disease because of the coincidence of the timing. Scientific data, however,
do not support any link.
Burton is in a position where he can express his grandfatherly concerns in
front of cameras, and call as witnesses whomever he believes will support his
contention. He feels so strongly about this matter that he is using
intimidation tactics. For example, he has subpoenaed the personnel records of
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention employees who work on immunization
programs, to see if they own stock in companies that make the vaccines.
At Burton's hearing on April 6, Coleen Boyle, PhD, from the CDC testified
that "the weight of scientific evidence does not support an association
between MMR and autism." But she went on to say that further study would be
Everyone supports further study of medical issues. But wishy-washy
government positions on the safety of the MMR vaccine can lead parents to
believe that safety is truly at issue. That's the subliminal message of these
hearings, and it's a wrong message.
The harm that Burton can cause may be beyond measure. Vaccines are the
underpinning of our disease-prevention programs. Imagine a world in which
children routinely contracted measles, mumps, and polio, just to name a few
diseases that vaccines have virtually eliminated.
Public-health officials already are challenged to assure that all children,
particularly those in low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods, obtain all
their shots. Undermining the public's confidence in vaccines, which may be the
ultimate effect of Burton's crusade, can make it more difficult to obtain