News Media Continue to Manipulate the MMR Controversy with Research ‘Disproving’ Link Between Autism and MMR
Posted Feb 01 2012 12:00am
News media continue to manipulate the MMR controversy with research ‘disproving’ the link between autism and MMR
By Martin Hewitt
For some years a common media response to new autism research was the question: what do these findings say about the MMR/autism controversy. The response applies especially to research on the presence of autism prior to the first MMR jab at 13 months; evidence of autism before the jab is taken without question as proof there is no MMR/autism link. This has become a key question for reporters and interviewers seeking to make sense of new autism research and produce easily digested reports for news audiences, however relevant or not the question to the specific research under review. Researchers themselves sometimes encourage this response when they make statements alerting news media to the significance of their research for the MMR controversy.
So it is with the latest UK research into the association of early infant responses to eye gaze and the subsequent onset of autism pre-released last week (Elsabbagh et al ‘Infant neural sensitivity to dynamic eye gaze is associated with later emerging autism’, Current Biology, Vol 2, pp. 1-5, February 21 2012, available online here ). On the 27th January edition of the BBC’s premiere morning radio programme ‘Today’, presenter Sarah Montague ended her interview with Professor Tony Charman, co-author of the study, with the question: "There is of course one rather obvious thing, if you can say a child has autism at six months, you can say it's not the result of an injection – say the MMR row – the child has at one". Charman replied: “I think that is a very good point but not one we make in the paper. But there is so much weight of evidence about this, and our study makes a contribution to something that should have been over many years ago". UK newspapers took a similar line. We will return to the relevance of the research for the MMR issue later.
One of the first signs parents notice of autism is their child’s failure to respond to their gaze; the child shows little interest when a parent looks them in the eye. Recent research has used this insight in measuring the neural activity of children confronted with dynamic images of adult faces gazing at and then away from them – activity also taken as a sign of future impairment in social interaction. The study compared neural activity in 54 infants between six and ten months with older autistic siblings (the at risk group) and 50 infants of the same age without autistic siblings (the control group). This prospective longitudinal study then independently assessed the two groups for autism at 24 and at 36 months. The research found that 17 children in the at risk group who had showed atypical neural activity in response to dynamic eye shifts were later diagnosed with autism at 36 months. The study concluded that measures of neural activity in response to eye shifts at 6 months could be developed into a predictive measure of whether a child was likely to become autistic at 36 months. Early intervention could then be targeted at these children. Currently the first signs of autistic behaviour are seen in the second year of life at the time when the diagnosis is first made. The research seeks to bring diagnosis forward into the first six to ten months when behavioural symptoms of autism are not normally observable.
The press release put out by Autistica, the charity funding biological studies of autism including the present study, warns that " there were cases in which individual babies who showed these differences in brain function were not later diagnosed and vice versa. In other words, the method would require further refinement, most likely in combination with other factors, to form the basis of a predictor accurate enough for clinical use in the general population.” In short, the study also revealed children scoring false positives: i.e. they had atypical neural responses at six to ten months, but were not assessed as autistic at around their third birthday; likewise children with normal responses who went on to become autistic. Presently evidence of atypical neural response to facial gaze/interaction is not sufficiently reliable to provide a prognostic tool for autism.
Early signs of autism and the question of vaccinations
For parents who witnessed their children fall into autism following MMR or the earlier DPT and who remain convinced of the adverse affect of these vaccinations, this study might challenge their convictions. The argument goes: if autism can be detected in children as young as 6 months then clearly the MMR administered at 13 months is not responsible for their autism. This is the clear implication of the 'Today' interview quoted earlier. But this conclusion is wrong on four counts,
First, parents and scientists who suspect vaccines contribute to late-onset autism recognise this is only one route to autism. By recognising regressive autism, they differentiate between children who regress and children who show behavioural signs of developmental delay from the first months of life which are later diagnosed as autism and where the cause may be congenital. The above study may be identifying children in the second group. For parents suspecting vaccine damage, therefore, the research may not be relevant. Despite government and media denials of an alleged link, they continue to ask why their children became autistic within days or weeks following MMR. Science has so far failed to identify the reason why signs of regressive autism first appear in a child's second year.
Second, children in the second group who are identified as showing early signs of possible later autism may be the very children who are vulnerable to interventions that exacerbate their predisposition, such as vaccines, and who may not have become autistic were it not for these interventions.
Thirdly, by 6 months a child following both the UK and UD immunisation schedules has already received a large number of vaccines. The possibility that children exhibiting signs of autism at 6 months have already been damaged cannot be ruled out.
Finally, whilst the study may, allowing for false positives, identify some children who are on course to develop autism, it also identifies children who respond normally to eye shifts and are considered unlikely to develop autism. It is this group with no identifiable predisposition to autism who may still be vulnerable to subsequent vaccine damage. Scientists who claim this research is the final nail in the coffin of the MMR-autism hypothesis cannot discount the existence of children in this group who, without a predisposition to autism, may suffer vaccine damage. If they do deny such damage it will be for reasons other than those provided by the present research.
Until a few years ago, studies of media news’ presentations of autism research blamed media outlets that reported parental concerns about vaccine safety and autism for scaremongering. On 23rd January this year, Fiona Fox, of the Science Media Centre, appearing before the UK Leveson Inquiry into press ethics, repeated her long-standing claim ( here ) that: "While the media was not solely responsible for the MMR scare and lessons have been learned by all concerned, some of the underlying values still remain in parts of our newsrooms -- the appetite for a great scare story, the desire to overstate a claim made by one expert in a single small study, the reluctance to put one alarming piece of research into a wider, more reassuring context, journalistic balance which conveys a scientific divide where there is none, the love of the maverick and so on." For Fox, the blame lay, and continues to lie in part, with a scaremongering media who have distorted the case for MMR safety.
This was the same week when the lead researcher for the present paper, Professor Charman, said, referring to the MMR issue, that his “study makes a contribution to something that should have been over many years ago”, broadcast courtesy of the BBC’s flagship news programme ‘Today’. Now the media herd has turned 180 degrees from addressing the real concerns of parents to acting as the rubber stamp for government science and its web of allied interests.