Time to look past junk science when discussing autism disorder

The publication of Andrew Wakefield’s now debunked research that linked vaccinations as a cause for Autism Spectrum Disorder in 1998 brought with it a flurry of questions and inquiries into the safety of vaccines. Since then those questions regarding the link have been answered. There isn’t one. There are many other environmental factors supported by scientific studies and empirical data. Countless advocacy groups have conducted studies in regards to the link between vaccines and autism and they’ve all come back with refutations.

Despite the lack of scientific data to support them, parental fears have flourished and the unsubstantiated claims have come to pose a significant threat to public health. In the past several years Minnesota has seen several outbreaks of diseases that were preventable, including Rochester’s pertussis outbreak in 2015 and this year’s measles outbreak.

One problematic aspect is the media coverage. This past year we’ve heard a steady drum beat of news coverage on the topic. Politicians, celebrities, the presidential election, and movies have all contributed to the narrative. The exposure has rarely been founded on scientific evidence nor has it been the result of research by families and caregivers

This past year has produced a wealth of new scientific findings on environmental factors of autism. These findings could have led to legitimate therapeutic methods or preventative measures and yet they received very little media attention. The phrase environmental factor is often misconstrued to be defined as having a focus on animal biology. This is inaccurate. Anything that produces a biological or behavioral response that is non-genetic is an environmental factor. The other concept in need of clarification is the difference between a “cause” and a “risk factor.” A cause is what leads to a disease or condition. A risk factor is what increases the odds of a disease or condition being produced.

There is currently no cause for Autism Spectrum Disorder. This would then lead to the conclusion that it’s a combination of environmental factors that contribute to an ASD diagnosis. Factors such as pregnancy complications, maternal obesity, severe viral infections and the age of the parents all have been considered by scientists to be risk factors.

Another distraction is that of the mercury present in the MMR vaccine. Mercury is often emitted by burning coal. Every hour, 11 lbs. of mercury is released into the environment. Bacteria breaks it down into methylmercury. It’s found in our food sources, it’s found in our blood streams. The other type of mercury is ethyl mercury which is produced in labs as an ingredient for Thimerosal which was originally used in vaccines.

It has been removed from all vaccines given to children age 6 and under. Despite those actions combined with stricter EPA in regards to mercury, 1 in 8 American males is on the spectrum and the public continues to be outraged by fake science. Every penny spent on dead ends and wild goose chases is a loss of ground.

We’re failing families, who deserve answers. It’s time to refocus on getting legitimate answers for the autism community.

Noah McCourt is an appointee to the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities and is himself on the autism spectrum.