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Berginski: Correlation Does Not Equal Causation

By Staff | Sep 18, 2015

I caught bits and pieces of the second Republican Presidential Debate Wednesday evening. One piece that really stuck out was vaccines and autism.

Debate moderator Jake Tapper questioned Dr. Ben Carson, a retired pediatric neurosurgeon, on whether fellow candidate Donald Trump should continue linking vaccines to autism in children. Trump brought up the case of a two-year-old child who was vaccinated and showed signs of autism after being sick a week later. Considering a child’s brain should be right up his alley, Carson really didn’t provide a clear answer to the question. Instead, he basically said what I’m going to say now: Correlation DOES NOT equal causation.

The number of autism cases has increased in the past 20, 30 years; with 1 in 68 children having it, there’s no doubt about that. The signs of autism – behavioral, functional, etc. – can show up around the time parents start vaccinating their children, which is where the correlation begins. But the increase in prevalence could also mean that promising research has allowed professionals to better screen and diagnose it. Better research has also allowed experts to differentiate autism from disorders like Landau-Kleffner syndrome – a neurological disorder in 3 to 7-year-old children characterized by suddenly being unable to express or understand language and abnormal electroencephalograms (EEGs).

This kind of thinking, that vaccines cause autism, gained ground in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in The Lancet, a medical journal, linking colitis and autism spectrum disorders to the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In the United Kingdom, where The Lancet is published, the media gave the paper credence and public confidence in the vaccine briefly dropped. That is, in and of itself, dangerous.

This kind of thinking persists even after it was found that Wakefield’s paper was chalk full of pseudoscience and manipulated figures, and that it was also funded by litigation-happy lawyers defending parents of the children the paper used.

Carson, Trump and Sen. Rand Paul, who, by the way, is also a doctor, showed concern about the number and frequency of certain kinds of vaccines, and said that it should be an individual choice to get the combination or individual shots and space them out over a longer period of time.

There are quite a few combined vaccinations out there; MMR is just one. Tetanus, diptheria and pertussis is another. The MMR vaccine has also been combined with the varicella (chicken pox) shot, and TDaP has been combined with polio and hemophilus influenza type B to produce Pentacel and with polio and hepatitis B to form Pediarix. Some people have concerns about what ingredients are used to stabilize the vaccines, and what side effects are reactions, even the rare ones, are associated with them. The concerns are not without merit. But every one of these combined vaccinations saves time and fiscally makes sense: Why waste gas dollars driving to public health nurses, courthouses, clinics to get 10, 20 individual shots? What’s the point of subjecting a child to 10 or more needle pricks – and the pain, screaming and crying associated with them – when the needed shots can be taken care of with less? Yes, vaccinating should be a parent’s choice, but parsing needed shots out, waiting or not getting them at all can be risky at best, and, at worst, leaves children vulnerable to far worse diseases than autism.

As a former physician, Carson had the opportunity, in front of millions of people watching television, to dispel dangerous modes of thinking with regards to vaccines and autism, and present scientific evidence that would’ve done that. He didn’t, and that should raise eyebrows, if not alarm bells.

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