According to World Health Organisation (WHO), about one in 100 children have autism. However, mis/disinformation about vaccines causing autism has prevented several parents from getting their kids vaccinated, thus exposing them to vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, hepatitis B HPV etc.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition often resulting in difficulties in communication and socialising. This is also a lifelong condition.
Even though the characteristics of autism can be detected in early childhood, it is often not diagnosed until much later.
As April is celebrated as autism awareness month, we reached out to experts to discuss one of the most common myths surrounding autism – is vaccination really the root cause of autism?
We spoke to Nayana Liza John, an autism practitioner at Carr Gomm, United Kingdom, Dr Koustubh Bagul MD Psychiatrist and Dr Neelu Desai, Pediatric Neurologist and Epileptologist.
IS THERE ANY LINK BETWEEN VACCINES AND ASD?
The misconception about vaccination causing autism emerged in 1998 when a British paper stated that measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination caused autism. Although this paper was eventually labeled as a fraud, the scare had already made its way to people.
John told us that there is absolutely no link between vaccinations and autism.
"It is a misconception that vaccinations can cause autism. Even though there is no scientific evidence establishing vaccination as a causal variable for autism, some parents continue to believe so," she adds.
A study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2013 concluded that there is no link between ASD and vaccines.
The study focused on the number of antigens given during the child's first two years. These results showed that any amount of exposure antigens in vaccines was not related to the risk of developing ASD.
Dr Bagul mentions that there is no concrete proof about vaccination causing autism.
According to Bagul, people try to find a reason behind autism but they fail to understand that this is a neurodevelopmental and a spectrum disorder.
"When the child is diagnosed with mild autism, the parents don't understand the reason behind the diagnosis. They think that the child was doing fine for a number of months but after giving this particular vaccination, he/she got a fever which might be the reason for autism," he adds.
Desai stresses the old study claiming an association of autism with the measles vaccine and one of its content, thiomersal.
She adds that people started linking mercury-based thiomersal present in the vaccine as a cause of autism.
"The age when this vaccine was given at nine months at 15 months. Coincidentally, this was also the time when the first symptoms of autism were noticed in the child," says Desai.
However, later it was proved by several studies that there is no association between vaccines and autism. Autism incidents were increasing even after removing this content from the vaccines.
WHO also states that epidemiological data concludes that there is no link between any vaccines given during the childhood with autism.
In 2022, an estimated 250 lakh children under the age of one did not receive basic vaccines globally, as reported by WHO.
However, the number of completely unvaccinated children increased by 50 lakh between 2019 to 2021.
IS THE CAUSE OF AUTISM KNOWN?
As per WHO, scientific evidence backs up that there are several factors that make a child more likely to have autism which includes environmental and genetic factors.
However, the exact cause of autism is still unknown and the reasons for this neurological divergence are not fully understood.
"Evidence suggests that autism arises through several factors that impact brain development and function. These can include genetic, environmental and hormonal factors," adds John.
HOW AWARE IS INDIA ABOUT AUTISM?
Indians experience a weight of social stigma and shame around autism making it a tough journey for people diagnosed with ASD.
According to Bagul, acceptance of ASD is still a very big problem in India as parents are not ready to accept that their child has autism.
"There is a problem of awareness too, parents are not aware of this spectrum disorder and its symptoms. Awareness is very poor, and acceptance is poorer than that. The important thing to note is that, earlier the diagnosis of autism, the better the outcome," he adds.
John also points out that parents often don’t have access to proper guidance and are exposed to the media’s portrayal of what autism "should be".
This causes panic and ignorance towards both, the condition and the necessary steps to inculcate if diagnosed with autism.
Misinformation around vaccines and autism have been debunked by fact-checking organisations before, increasingly after the COVID-19 vaccination program began, such as in this story by The Healthy Indian Project.
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