At the very least, you have to commend anti-vaxxers who are willing to put their money where their mouth is and commit to independent verification of their claims that vaccinations lead to autism. Sadly, this didn’t turn out too well for autism advocacy organization SafeMinds when they funded a scientific study looking at the long term effects of childhood vaccines. From NewsWeek:
Between 2003 and 2013, SafeMinds provided scientists from the University of Texas Southwestern School of Medicine, the University of Washington, the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development and other research institutions with approximately $250,000 to conduct a long-term investigation evaluating behavioral and brain changes of baby rhesus macaques that were administered a standard course of childhood vaccines. (The National Autism Association, another organization that has questioned vaccine safety, also provided financial support for this research.) The latest paper in the multiyear project was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). In it, the researchers concluded that vaccines did not cause any brain or behavioral changes in the primates.
Anti-vaccine activists like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey have long claimed that vaccines with the mercury based thimerosal and the MMR can cause autism. Thimerosal has been removed from the majority of vaccines for almost 20 years, but the researchers still studied its potential health effects and found that “that the monkeys’ behaviors remained unchanged” over duration of the project.
In response to the findings Safe Minds decided to selectively choose evidence countering the fairly definitive study, sending the following statement to NewsWeek via email:
“The epidemic of autism is expected to cost the country $1 trillion by 2025 if prevalence trends continue. In a recent study, over 40 percent of parents agree or strongly agree that vaccines played a part in the development of their children’s autism. The vaccine primate study in question consisted of multiple phases. The initial phase found a series of negative effects in infant reflexes and brain growth among those exposed to vaccines. The second, recent phase purported to find no effect. SafeMinds has concerns about changes in the study design protocol and analysis that may have led to these contradictory results. We are in the process of collecting and reviewing additional information regarding this study.”
According to NewsWeek, this statement is highly misleading:
Dr. Laura Hewitson, director of research for the Johnson Center for Child Health & Development, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, a lead researcher on project and co-author on all four papers, says that at the time that email was sent, it was also made clear to SafeMinds “that the data should be treated as preliminary until all of the animals had completed the study.” She added that none of the study’s procedures changed once her team moved from the pilot program to a larger sample.
“The same assessments were performed on a much larger number of primates by a team of behaviorists with decades of experience working with nonhuman primate infants,” Hewitson tells Newsweek. “For example, in the pilot study we examined 13 different neonatal reflexes from birth to 14 days of age in just two groups of animals. In the current study, we examined those same 13 reflexes, plus six others from birth to 21 days of age, in six groups of animals—a much more comprehensive experimental design.”
The larger, more accurate study found no brain effects on the animals from vaccines.
It isn’t hard to predict how organizations like SafeMinds and other anti-vaxxers will react to further studies that prove what we already know – that vaccines do not cause autism – even if you really, really want it to.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.