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Last updated on April 19, 2014 at 9:20 EDT

Many Parents Still Believe Vaccines Can Cause Autism

March 1, 2010

Research has found that one in four U.S. parents believe that vaccines can cause autism in healthy children.

The study, which was based on a survey of 1,552 parents, found that most of them still continue to follow the advice of their children’s doctors.  Extensive research has found no tie between autism and vaccines.

“Nine out of 10 parents believe that vaccination is a good way to prevent diseases for their children,” lead author Dr. Gary Freed of the University of Michigan told the Associated Press (AP). “Luckily their concerns don’t outweigh their decision to get vaccines so their children can be protected from life-threatening illnesses.”

Dr. Melinda Wharton of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told AP that in 2008, unvaccinated school-age children contributed to measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, Washington, Arizona and New York.  Thirteen percent of the kids who were sick that year were hospitalized.

“It’s fortunate that everybody recovered,” Wharton added, noting that measles can be deadly. “If we don’t vaccinate, these diseases will come back.”

A 1998 study led to the fear of a vaccine-autism connection.  The retraction came after a council that regulates Britain’s doctors decided that the study’s author acted dishonestly and unethically.

The University of Michigan based the new study on a survey of parents long before the 1998 study was retracted.  There has been a lot written about research that has failed to link vaccines and autism.  Mainstream advocacy groups like Autism Speaks strongly encourage parents to have their kids vaccinated.

“Now that it’s been shown to be an outright fraud, maybe it will convince more parents that this should not be a concern,” said Freed, whose study appears in the April issue of Pediatrics, released Monday.

Some doctors have taken a stand against the allegations, telling parents that refuse to have their child vaccinated to find another doctor.

A statement from a group of doctors in Philadelphia outlines its doctors’ adamant support for government recommended vaccines and their belief that “vaccines do not cause autism or other developmental disabilities.”

“Furthermore, by not vaccinating your child you are taking selfish advantage of thousands of others who do vaccinate their children … We feel such an attitude to be self-centered and unacceptable,” the statement says, urging those who “absolutely refuse” vaccines to find another physician.

“We call it the manifesto,” Dr. Bradley Dyer of All Star Pediatrics in Lionville, Pa told AP.

Dyer said that dozens of doctors have asked to distribute the statement, and only a handful of parents have taken their children to other places.

“Parents have said, ‘Thank you for saying that. We feel much better about it,’” Dyer said.

The new study is based on results from parents with children 17 and younger that filled out questions online.  It used a sample from a randomly selected pool of nationally representative participants.  Parents were given Internet access if they did not already have it, just to ensure families of all incomes were included.  The survey did not mention vaccines in the invitation to participate, and vaccine questions were among others on unrelated topics.

Twenty-five percent of parents said they thought “some vaccines cause autism in healthy children.”  Of the mothers that participated, 29 percent agreed with that statement, while 17 percent of fathers agreed with it.

About 12 percent of parents said they would refuse a vaccine for their child that a doctor recommended.  Fifty-six percent of those said they had refused the relatively new vaccine against human papillomavirus, or HPV, which causes cervical cancer.  Thirty-two percent refused vaccines against meningococcal disease, 32 percent refused chickenpox vaccines and 18 percent refused measles-mumps-rubella.

Parents that refused the HPV vaccine cited various reasons. 

Parents that refuse the MMR vaccine said they had read or heard about problems with it or felt its risk were too great.

Dr. Gary S. Marshall of the University of Louisville School of Medicine and author of a vaccine handbook for doctors said the findings would help doctors craft better ways to talk with parents.

“For our children’s sake, we have to think like scientists,” Marshall, who was not involved in the new study, told AP. “We need to do a better job presenting the data so parents understand how scientists have reached this conclusion that vaccines don’t cause autism.”

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