Editorial: Consider the evidence
It is not our general practice to respond to the comments readers make on articles published online by the Craig Press. We feel everyone is entitled to an opinion, so we offer our online comments section as an open forum for the expression of such opinions, and we do not vet, proctor, or debate the comments left there unless they are profane, libelous, or belligerent.
We do read the comments, though, and occasionally, we run across one we feel compelled to address.
Such was the case last week, when we published an article sponsored by Memorial Regional Health headlined, "The time for a flu shot is now — Seasonal flu vaccines especially important for children and adults older than 65." The article, which outlined a number of reasons everyone 6-months-old and older should be vaccinated for the flu, elicited a comment urging residents to use caution when deciding whether to submit themselves and their children to vaccinations.
We don't specifically disagree with that part of the comment; a healthy measure of caution is always prudent when considering medical treatments, particularly elective treatments.
But the comment also cited evidence linking vaccines to serious side effects, including autism, and urged readers not to be swayed by "propaganda."
We must take exception to this last portion of the comment.
There is simply no widely accepted, peer-reviewed evidence linking vaccines to autism.
A 2004 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — the collective scientific national academy of the United States — examined the hypothesis that vaccines, specifically the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, vaccine, and thimerosal-containing vaccines are causally associated with autism. It found no such association.
According to the report: "The committee concludes that the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. The committee also concludes that the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. The committee further finds that potential biological mechanisms for vaccine-induced autism that have been generated to date are theoretical only."
In non-science jargon, this means the evidence gathered in multiple, peer-reviewed, reproducible studies shows no causal relationship between these vaccines and autism. As a result, the majority of scientists, physicians, and public health researchers have come to the conclusion that there very likely is no such link.
It is important to note the provisional language used in the report: "evidence favors rejection," "theoretical only," and so forth. That's what science — real science, anyway — does. It makes no claim of absolute certainty; rather, it posits likely conclusions based upon available evidence and remains open to modification pending new evidence.
If and when new evidence is uncovered, it may offer indications that the MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines are, in fact, linked to autism. But given the evidence we have now — and there’s plenty of it — we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that there probably is no such link.
Even so, we understand the reluctance of some to subject themselves or their children to vaccinations when there is even a possibility — regardless of how remote — such a link could exist. But when examined in light of all the facts, these concerns fall apart.
When we get into our cars each morning to drive to work, there's a possibility we may be involved in a fatal car crash, but we accept that possibility because the benefits of driving a car outweigh the potential of a fatal crash. We take the chance because the odds are stacked overwhelmingly in our favor.
The same is true of vaccines.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before the middle of the last century, diseases such as whooping cough, polio, measles, Haemophilus influenza, and rubella struck hundreds of thousands of infants, children, and adults in the U.S., and thousands died each year from these diseases. As vaccines were developed and became widely used, however, rates of these diseases declined until, today, most are nearly gone from our country.
Furthermore, studies have shown that vaccinations increase the resistance to the spread of a contagious disease within a population through a mechanism known as "herd immunity." If a sufficiently high proportion of individuals are immune to a particular disease, especially through vaccination, the disease cannot spread as readily through a population.
This means that individual decisions involving vaccination don't impact only one child or only one family; rather they affect entire communities. The fewer healthy people who are immunized, the more vulnerable we all are, particularly the youngest, oldest, and frailest among us.
All that said, we support everyone's right to make their own decisions about vaccinations. Yet we urge everyone to do their research and base their decisions on sound evidence.