To vaccinate or not to vaccinate your children—I can hardly think of a more contested and controversial topic, and I'm not about to presume I can answer this question one way or the other.
The best I can do right now is to share what the research says, while acknowledging more research needs to be done to illuminate the issue for concerned parents.
Let me make sure to make this very clear: I AM NOT IN ANY WAY BIAS TO EITHER SIDE! If you are pro vaccine- I understand, if you are anti vaccine- I understand. I am not a pediatric professional in any way. I am a Mom who is also an expert in women's health (pre and post natal). I am a trainer and nutritionist, that is my expertise. However; I have been asked this question countless times.
In an effort to answer the popular question and share my interpretation of the research, I have written this post. This is my review of the research, I do not study this on the regular basis (like I do other things) so please understand that I presented the information and research to the best of my knowledge and ability. This is not a post to tell you that you should or should not vaccinate your children, this is what I have found and how I perceive what I have found.
Here's a brief run down of some of the research I could find:
Vaccines Are Not Immune To Fake News (No Pun Intended)
Dr. Andrew Wakefield: it's probably the most notorious name in the vaccine/autism debate. He's the one who put out the now-debunked 1998 study published in The Lancet, which purported to show that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism.
This study is largely credited with stirring up the whole vaccine/autism controversy to begin with. And not only was it confirmed to be falsified and fraudulent (later retracted), but Dr. Wakefield was eventually barred from practicing as a physician in the UK where he hails from.
I bring this up to simply highlight the fact that the vaccine/autism controversy has no shortage of strong emotions on either side of the fence. And when science is influenced by emotion (and/or the possibility of personal gain), foul play is bound to happen.
I mean, I don't know about you, but as a parent I want objective, rigorous, unbiased evidence to help me make decisions about my kids' well-being. You know...seems legit.
Vaccines Have Support From Major Reputable Organizations...
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the Institute of Medicine (IOM), UNICEF, and other major entities all stand behind the use of childhood vaccines as a way to prevent death from communicable diseases and protect the population at large. As a major for instance, the scourges of smallpox, diptheria, and polio have been either totally or mostly eradicated.
These organizations repeatedly cite decades' worth of scientific studies (like this one) showing no link between vaccines and autism. This includes vaccines containing thimerosal (a contested mercury-based preservative which is hard to find in vaccines these days, anyway), vaccines containing aluminum, and vaccines administered closely together.
Of course, I'm not naive enough to say that organizations like these aren't immune to potential conflicts of interest and sketchy political/financial influences. But I'm also not willing to hop out on a witch hunt and say I can prove that anything like this is happening, either.
What I DO like seeing is some humility from these organizations—that is, officials being willing to say not all the evidence is crystal clear.
...But There Are Some Studies Calling Them Into Question
Like any medication or medical procedure, vaccines can and do carry at least some risk for adverse reactions and unintended (in some cases serious) health consequences. I don't think anyone is trying to deny that.
Even the IOM acknowledges that vaccines "carry risks for complications that can be greater for some individuals than others." Confirmed complications have included things like joint pain, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, anaphylaxis, and, to put it mildly, "chronic brain and immune system damage or death."
The IOM has also stated that there's not enough scientific evidence (yet, I can only hope) "to determine if the childhood vaccine schedule is or is not associated with the development" of disorders like autism, asthma, epilepsy, and others (emphasis theirs).
In the meanwhile, there are studies indicating a correlation between vaccines and various health conditions. Here's a few:
- A 2018 study published in Pharmacological Research found that male sheep injected with vaccines containing aluminium were significantly more likely to exhibit "antisocial" behaviors like aggression, social isolation, and compulsive eating.
- A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that children with anorexia, ADHD, OCD, and anxiety disorder were significantly more likely to have received vaccines within three months of their diagnosis compared to controls.
- A 2008 study published in Toxicological & Environmental Chemistry found, to pull a quote from the abstract, "statistically significant evidence to suggest that boys in United States who were vaccinated with the triple series Hepatitis B vaccine, during the time period in which vaccines were manufactured with thimerosal, were more susceptible to developmental disability than were unvaccinated boys."
In more recent news, respected pediatric neurologist Dr. Andrew Zimmerman made a bit of noise in the vaccine controversy. He revealed that back in 2007, three days before he was going to testify at the Omnibus Autism Proceeding on behalf of the federal government (and in support of a 2004 report from the IOM showing no scientific evidence supporting the vaccines/autism link), he spoke privately to attorneys from the Department of Justice about a revision to his clinical opinion based on his review of the literature at the time.
The following is what Dr. Zimmerman says he told the DOJ: "[T]here may be a subset of children who are at risk for [developmental] regression if they have underlying mitochondrial dysfunction and are simultaneously exposed to factors that stress their mitochondrial reserve (which is critical for the developing brain). Such factors might include infections, as well as metabolic and immune factors, and vaccines."
Things that make you go hmmm, am I right?
But, note that he mentions a specific "subset" of children—not all children. And he still is researching to this day to see exactly if and how mitochondrial dysfunction contributes to the development of autism spectrum disorder (BTW, be sure to check out my take on mitochondria if you haven't yet).
You can read his official statement about the matter here.
Like All Studies, Research on Vaccines Need to be Read With a Critical Eye
If you're new to reading research studies, then be sure to get this mantra embedded deeply into your brain:
Correlation does not equal causation. In other words, just because two things are associated with each other doesn't necessarily mean one causes the other to occur.
As an example: it's rained every Monday for the past two months. We can say this shows Mondays are rainy, but we CANNOT say this proves Mondays cause rain.
This is an ESSENTIAL concept to understand when you're looking at scientific and epidemiological studies. In order to "prove" A causes B, you really need more rigorous scientific research methods, such as randomized controlled trials and various statistical analysis techniques which are generally regarded as able to yield "stronger" evidence.
Notably, not all the studies on vaccines are like this. Hopefully, more will be, so we can have better evidence to help us make decisions. Just something to keep in mind.
One other thing I should mention: as with politicians, you need to follow the money when you're looking at a study. Who's funding it, and is it possible that this serves as a source of potential bias? It's not a big leap to say this is a definite possibility we need to contend with as consumers.
For example, an official release from the CDC rounds up findings from a variety of studies which overwhelmingly show thimerosal-containing vaccines are not linked with autism. But they acknowledge up front that all of the studies they cite were funded or directly conducted by the CDC itself...
Meanwhile, many decades' worth of other independent studies (as noted by a 2014 review from the journal BioMed Research International) have found evidence that directly contradicts the CDC's research: that is, thimerosal is a risk factor for speech and language delay, tics, attention deficit disorder, and autism.
Is your head spinning yet? Yeah, mine is, too.
A Shot at the Truth: My Current Thoughts on Childhood Vaccines
Here's my bottom line:
I know we're all trying to do the best we can as parents. And deciding to vaccinate or not to vaccinate our children doesn't quite seem to be the black and white choice either side of the debate wants us to believe.
For now at least, it's not entirely clear if and how vaccines are related to autism and other health conditions. Clearly, more research needs to be done in this area to make sure parents are being given the clearest and most accurate information possible in order.
In the mean time, parents should feel empowered to do as much research as they can on the matter, talk openly and honestly with their pediatricians, and ASK QUESTIONS.
Everyone asks me if I vaccinate my children and the answer is yes, I do. I don't think it's the right or wrong decision. I think, based off of the research that I have available and how I interpret that research is how I arrived at my decision to vaccinate my children. Am I making the right decision by doing so? I'm not entirely sure. I am hoping that research will continue to develop in this area and help make my decision making in the future on this topic a bit easier while building my confidence on that decision, whatever that may end up being.