As graduate students at Penn, we are required to complete yearly bioethics training. Due to this training, I attended a symposium last night entitled "Vaccine Mandates and Children". It was a pretty interesting discussion since the majority of people attending seemed to be pretty educated on vaccines and scientific theory. But there were the requisite crazies there too, which made me want to write a little bit about how science works. In general, scientist do experiments in order to answer some type of question. For example, if a gene is thought to be involved in some process, scientists can knock down or knock out the function of that gene in order to determine if it's involved in a certain process. Really, any type of science involved hypothesis (question) driven work, including population trends, clinical trials (does this drug treat the problem it says it does?), etc. Once we have gathered enough information, a "story", if you will, we begin the process of publishing our work in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The peer review process is extremely important because it involves prominent scientists who are experts in the field you are publishing in. They read your paper, critique your data, and send you feedback as to whether the journal should publish your work, or whether you should do more experiments to prove your point. Sometimes, you might miss a control, your interpretation of the data can be explained in several different ways, etc. This part of the process of publishing papers is so important because otherwise, science would not be regulated. As such, scientists self-regulate themselves, push each other to do better experiments and create an open dialogue about science and experiments. Without this regulation, scientific papers would merely be opinion of the writers of the paper, with no input from the scientific community. Once papers have been reviewed, the paper is sent back to the authors with important changes to be made, or it can be accepted or rejected on first submission. More often than not, papers are sent back to the authors for some changes and extra experiments. Once your changes have been made, your paper is sent back to the journal and sent out for re-review. If the reviewers are satisfied with the changes you have made, your paper will usually be accepted for publication. If not, it can again be rejected and new experiments may be suggested. Why I'm telling you this is because it's an important part of science that is not usually discussed. If you see a news story about an article in the New England Journal of Medicine you can be assured that article was peer-reviewed and passed the test for having proper controls, had a logically designed set of experiments, and the sample size was large enough to draw conclusions about the larger population. However, when a study was published in a journal that does not peer review articles, or worse, is published in a book (also not peer-reviewed) then you can be assured that the study was not done properly. The reason I am stating these things is because the unsubstantiated link between vaccines and autism came up last night (of course). People are refusing to vaccinate their children because they think vaccines cause autism. The link has never been proven, even though large studies have been carried out in multiple countries looking for a link, correlation, anything. The few people at the talk last night who still believed this cited a study that was not peer reviewed, was not published in a peer reviewed journal, had multiple, fundamental flaws, but was able to draw a link between autism and vaccines. Basically these people were citing faulty research. Just because someone with the title of "Dr." publishes a study does not mean you should entirely trust everything they say in their study. However, when articles are peer-reviewed, you can at least be assured that prominent scientists agree with the findings, the proper controls were done, and the proper number of experiments were carried out. It's unfortunate that the internet allows for people to get a hold of faulty research, so please, please do your research yourself.
Vaccines do not cause autism. More than likely, autism is caused by a combination of genes and the environment we live in. The first few weeks of pregnancy are extremely important, basically when all the "good stuff" happens. Like the formation of the brain, the nerves, your internal organs. If you face an environmental insult during this time period, or in later stages when the "fine tuning" is occurring, we have no idea what effect this has on a developing fetus. More than likely, this is when autism is started, but we have no way of assaying its development until a later time period, when language skills are developing and interpersonal interactions are becoming more obvious. The truth is that vaccines have saved lives and that having even a few un-vaccinated individuals in a classroom can nucleate an outbreak of a disease that should be preventable. The truth is that children should be vaccinated and parents that refuse to vaccinate their children are putting the rest of the human population at a huge risk for outbreaks of eradicated disease that can kill people.