Repudiation of autism-vaccine link may not sway parents

A 1998 study that sparked global fears that immunizations are the cause of autism has been debunked, retracted and now, labeled out-and-out medical fraud.

But public health officials, autism experts and parents of children who've been diagnosed with the disease say they don't expect a sudden increase in vaccination rates, which in some parts of Sonoma County are well below the state average.

"I honestly don't think it will dispel the fear," said Michele Rogers, executive director of the Early Learning Institute in Rohnert Park. "I think until we have the definitive answer for autism, parents are going to point to something because it's too scary and amorphous."

The idea that childhood vaccinations are behind a baffling increase in autism worldwide was sparked in large part by research conducted in 1998 by British doctor Andrew Wakefield.

Wakefield based his findings on 12 children who had suffered severe mental regressions, which Wakefield blamed on the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. He suggested the vaccine be split into three separate shots and given over a longer period.

Other researchers slammed Wakefield for what they said were his shoddy research methods and for drawing such a definitive conclusion about the risk of vaccines based on such a small study sample.

Nevertheless, the research sparked global fears of the shots, leading to declining vaccination rates and in some places, a resurgence of childhood diseases that had been virtually wiped out.

In Sonoma County, the percentage of fully immunized students entering kindergarten classes has steadily dipped from 91.6 percent in 2002 to 88.2 percent in 2009-10, according to state records. In nine school districts, six of them in the west county, the percentage of fully immunized kindergartners is less than 80 percent, a Public Health Department analysis said. Two school districts — Sebastopol Union Elementary and Twin Hills Union Elementary — were below 60 percent.

Last February, the editors of the influential medical journal The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield's published research. At the same time, the General Medical Council in Britain accused Wakefield of dishonesty and "callous disregard" for the children enrolled in his study, and stripped him of his medical license.

Then this week, the British Medical Journal published an investigation in which they reported serious flaws with Wakefield's research, including the fact that five children enrolled in his study had previously documented developmental problems, despite Wakefield's claims that the kids were normal up until they were given the MMR vaccine.

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