Autism Debate May End Up Harming Children

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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 appropriate.

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 universal immunizations.

Unfortunately, there is not a whole lot of publicly stated opposition to Burton's position. It's not that the public-health community believes what Burton is saying. It's that the public-health community is not taking Burton seriously enough. They do not believe that a single congressman-grandfather, no matter how powerful his committee chairmanship, can reverse broad public acceptance of immunization programs.

Burton is acting as a grandfather might. But his actions as a congressman come under a different level of scrutiny. In this case, when you read about Burton's hearings, remember that you're hearing the voice of an angry grandfather, not a public-health official. And don't forget to get your kids vaccinated according to the CDC schedule.

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