In 1998, a British medical researcher and former surgeon published a research paper. In it, Andrew Wakefield made a claim that linked the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to the onset of autism.
The result: instant fame for Wakefield, who went on to author a book that included a foreword by actress Jenny McCarthy on the autism link, and, in 2011, a retraction of all the research and findings.
The British medical journal BMJ concluded that Wakefield’s study was based on fraudulent data. Wakefield, they said, had altered or misrepresented medical histories of all patients whose cases were the foundation of his study. However, Wakefield claims no fraud occurred, and that his research clearly shows a link between autism and vaccination.
Now living in the United States, Wakefield has garnered enough attention on his research to have sparked a movement. Parents, accepting the notion of a link between immunizations and autism, are choosing not to vaccinate their children. Celebrities have joined parents in speaking out against what they feel is a requirement that is putting their children in harm’s way: mandatory vaccination.
Anti-vaccination stances have long been part of the culture in the U.S. The Amish community has not accepted vaccinations for safety and religious reasons. As a result, parents and anti-vaccine supporters point to the community’s seemingly nonexistent numbers of autism sufferers as proof that vaccines are doing harm.
However, the link hasn’t been proven. In 2013, The Journal of Pediatrics released the first-ever study of the CDC-recommended childhood immunization schedule and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The results show that “the amount of antigens from vaccines received on one day of vaccination or in total during the first two years of life is not related to the development of ASD.”
That data supports findings from a 2004 Institute of Medicine report that found no “causal relationship between certain vaccine type and autism.” While autism is on the rise, the medical research community has yet to find any tangible link between vaccination and the disease.
Ironically, as laws are relaxed on vaccination requirements, the incidence of autism is on the rise: from 1 in 88 cases two years ago to 1 in 68 cases this year, says the CDC.
However, current statistics on autism cases by state suggest there is little correlation between autism and vaccinations – autism rates in Alabama, where less than 1 percent of the population has non-medical exemption, are the lowest in the country at 1 in 175 children. In New Jersey, where between 1.1 and 2 percent of the population receives non-medical exemption, the rates of autism are worst – 1 in 45 children are diagnosed, according to the CDC.
Moreover, the occurrence of other disease – pertussis, measles, mumps and chicken pox – are on the increase. Between 2009 and 2010, there were 3,502 cases of mumps among New York City’s Jewish community. Pertussis cases tripled in New York to 1,288 in 2012. In Oregon, the state with the highest percentage of vaccination exemptions in the country, autism has risen to 8,694 children in 2011-2012, up from 7,579 children in 2008-2009, according to the Oregon Department of Education. And in Arizona, where all one needs is a parent’s signature to be exempt from vaccination, there were 12,000 reported cases of pertussis in 2013, a disease that can be fatal in small children.
Claims and legalities
To date, there has been no legal action taken against parents whose children aren’t immunized for non-medical reasons. However, those days could be short-lived as preventable diseases begin to reappear among the populace. For example, in 2010, 9,210 children in California contracted whooping cough, the state’s worst episode of the disease. The journal Pediatrics pointed to the high number of unvaccinated children as the distributors of the disease. Those same researchers noted that outbreaks of whooping cough coincided with unvaccinated children entering kindergarten between 2005 and 2010.
To date, Huhnsik Chung, insurance partner at Edwards Wildman Palmer in New York, has seen no litigation derived from unvaccinated people and disease outbreak. But he thinks it’s just a matter of time before insurers seek subrogation for claims stemming from outbreaks directly tied to an unvaccinated person. Medical costs rise, he says, in the wake of diseases that are caught and then spread by unvaccinated people. “It’s a situation where it would have been an otherwise preventable loss,” Chung says. “When an individual knowingly brings back mumps or other illness negligently – I think it’s gross negligence at this point – exposes him or herself to others causing injury, is that a viable cause of action? I don’t think it would get tossed out (of court).”