April 28, 2011, Seattle Children’s Hospital had the pleasure of welcoming Alison Singer, Founder and President of the Autism Science Foundation, to speak to our providers and staff here at the hospital. The talk was also open to the public. This blog post will briefly summarize the content of the talk, titled “Talking to Parents About Autism and Vaccines”.
While acknowledging that this is a controversial issue, Ms. Singer, who is the parent and sibling of a child with autism herself, discussed recent scientific findings that do not support any link between autism and vaccines. She highlighted that many studies have now been done that show no link between autism and the use of vaccines (e.g., Plotkin et al., 2009). She also discussed that the original and only study linking autism and vaccines (Wakefield, 1998) was retracted from the publishing journal, Lancet, a little over one year ago, an event that was highly publicized in the media. Andrew Wakefield’s medical license has also been removed since that time due to allegations of fraudulent practices in his research.
As both a parent and professional in the autism world, Ms. Singer focused a significant portion of her talk on suggested strategies for providers to use when discussing this sensitive, and sometimes downright volatile issue, with parents. We were reminded that as medical providers, we are taught that one of our obligations to our patients is to be up to date on current research and to accurately convey this information to families.
We were also reminded to remain patient-centered in the care we provide and to discuss issues with families in an empathic and supportive way. Ms. Singer emphasized that families are our partners in their health care decisions and that understanding what drives a parent’s concerns, fears, or questions can sometimes be more helpful than just providing facts. She also challenged us to find ways to educate our patients about the current available science, while also putting ourselves in their shoes when our opinions differ. When we strike this balance as providers, we can begin to truly discuss these sometimes difficult issues with families in an open and honest way.
Ms. Singer also emphasized the importance of discussing the unequivocal benefits of childhood vaccination with families. We fortunately rarely ever see the serious infectious diseases like infantile meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus, polio or measles that claimed thousands of children’s lives in the past. Nevertheless, in communities that do have low immunization rates, these diseases have returned, sometimes with devastating effects. Acknowledging a family’s fears should be balanced by reminding our patients of the benefits of various treatments.
While the debate about a link between vaccines and autism continues in the community, the media, and often the clinic office, Ms. Singer emphasized that, thus far, the science has not supported this debate. Since the vaccine question will not likely be laid to rest until we have more answers about the causes of autism, it is important that all members of the autism community work respectfully together to address this issue, as it is one of the many stressors that families face when supporting an individual with this disorder.
For more information about the Autism Science Foundation, please see www.autismsciencefoundation.org.
For more information about the research on this topic, the Autism Science Foundation has provided direct links to many recent studies: www.autismsciencefoundation.org/autismandvaccines.html
Plotkin, S., Gerber, J.S. & Offit, P.A. (2009). Vaccines and autism: A tale of shifting hypotheses. Clinical and Infectious Diseases, 48, 456-461.
Wakefield, A.J., Murch, S.H., Anthony, A., et al. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637-641.
Direct link (includes retraction): www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9500320