Reconciling the Link Between MMR and Autism

There has been a lot of controversy around immunizations, especially regarding the question of whether they contribute to the rising rates of autism. More and more parents around the country are declining immunizations for their children. On one side of the debate are physicians and medical researchers that contend that immunizations are safe. They base that assertion on a wide variety of studies done in the United States, Canada, UK, Denmark and other countries that could find no link between immunizations and autism. On the other side is a cadre of mothers convinced that immunizations—most notably the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR)—were the primary trigger for the development of an autistic disorder in their child. The stories from these mothers are similar: my child was healthy and developing normally until he or she got the MMR vaccine at the pediatrician’s office and within a week of the MMR, started showing signs of autism that progressed and they were never the same again.

I have a theory that may reconcile these opposing viewpoints. Many chronic conditions are triggered by an accumulation of environmental triggers within a genetically susceptible individual. This is the paradigm for chronic headaches. A person who has multiple family members prone to migraines will often get a mild headache with one or two triggers or a full-blown migraine with severe throbbing unilateral pain if more triggers are in play. (This is well elucidated in the book Heal Your Headache by David Buchholz, M.D.) Some triggers can be minor and others major, but it is the cumulative effect that determines the duration and severity of the physical manifestations.

This paradigm for chronic illness is called the “barrel effect” in the book The Autoimmune Epidemic by Donna Nazakawa. For the child who will become autistic, there is genetic susceptibility plus a variety of environmental exposures—heavy metals, chemicals, toxins and others—accumulating over time. There is growing support for autism as an autoimmune condition and, if this is correct, the immature immune system is gradually being overwhelmed by these exogenous substances. It is well established that the MMR vaccine is one of vaccines that most stimulates a vigorous immune response. At least 10% of children who receive the MMR will have “flu-like” symptoms with low grade fevers, fatigue and muscle aches. Parents can mistakenly think that some infectious agent has been transmitted to their child. The symptoms relate instead to the immune response generated by the vaccine.

My theory is that you have an inherently susceptible child with multiple exposures that have built up over their first year or so of life. The child is close to showing the signs of autism and then the MMR vaccine hyperstimulates the immune system, triggering the first physical manifestations of the developing autoimmune condition. This would explain why researchers have not found that immunized children have higher rates of autism compared to unimmunized children. It would also explain the timing of autism relative to the vaccine. The MMR is typically given some time around 15 months of age.

The vaccine acts as an accelerant in the process. Imagine a pile of simmering embers with gasoline added. This concept may be the only way to legitimize both sides of the argument. For those of you on either side of this debate, please comment on this theory. If you’re questioning the safety of immunizations and are worried they will put your child at risk of autism, doesn’t this theory fit better than some conspiracy where doctors and researchers are giving immunizations that could potentially harm their patients, children and grandchildren?

Andrew Lenhardt MD

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