Vaccines and autism: Sound science gets a shot in the arm

By Jeff Isaacson (’83), associate professor of biology

Immunology students separate fact from rumors in vaccine debate.

Field Notes: Vaccines and Autism

My immunology lab tried something new this past semester. Normally, Biology 276 lab activities are limited to learning immunological techniques, performing a few experimental labs and perhaps reviewing a couple of scientific papers. This year, after hearing many stories about a possible association between vaccines and autism, I thought that having three hours a week to focus on immunology-related topics might also provide a good opportunity for students to investigate a single issue.

Right around the beginning of the semester, the British medical journal The Lancet officially retracted one of the first scientific articles to claim there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, a claim that has been taken up by some celebrities and anti-vaccine advocates on the Internet. To differentiate between the scientific approach to answering questions and the rumors and speculation on the Internet, the 12 students in the class participated in a “journal club,” in which they took turns reading and giving presentations on articles related to vaccines and autism.

 There is no solid, reproducible evidence linking vaccines and autism.

Zac Woodward reflected the opinion of most students by noting that the journal club “demands more direct involvement from us as students by placing the responsibility of not only learning the material ourselves, but also presenting it to the rest of the class.” For Woodward, this approach led to more thorough preparation.

As for the scientific question at hand, Alyssa Sickel seemed to speak for the class when she observed, “There is no solid, reproducible evidence linking vaccines and autism.”

But, like all scientific questions, the students also understood that new evidence could quickly disprove that. Students will continue their investigation of this and many other scientific issues long after the semester’s end.