The British med­ical journal, BMJ, has pub­lished a report by an inves­tiga­tive jour­nalist on the first study to link a child­hood vac­cine to autism and inflam­ma­tory bowel dis­ease. The article in the BMJ called the study an “elab­o­rate fraud,” and claimed that the “appear­ance of a link with autism was man­u­fac­tured at a London med­ical school.”

Dr. Andrew Wake­field linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vac­cine to autism in a study pub­lished in the med­ical journal Lancet more than 10 years ago. Lancet retracted the study last year after the British Gen­eral Med­ical Council found that Wake­field had acted “dis­hon­estly and irre­spon­sibly” in his research.

Richard Deth is a pro­fessor of phar­ma­cology in the Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences and the School of Phar­macy at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity. His research sug­gests that vac­cines con­taining alu­minum and/​or the mercury-​​based preser­v­a­tive thimerosal could con­tribute to the devel­op­ment of autism in chil­dren who lack the genetic capa­bility to excrete neu­ro­toxic metals. The MMR vac­cine does not con­tain alu­minum or thimerosal.

Deth, who is cur­rently attending a vac­cine safety con­fer­ence with Wake­field and other sci­en­tists, clin­i­cians and legal experts, offers his response to the controversy.

What are your thoughts on the BMJ report?

I think it’s very unusual, but at the same time revealing, that the BMJ chose to pub­lish this story. Inves­tiga­tive jour­nalist Brian Deer has been on a mis­sion to dis­credit Wake­field for years. His report is not a sci­en­tific article, but rather an opinion piece that doesn’t focus on the sci­en­tific finding of whether or not autistic chil­dren have inflam­ma­tion in their gas­troin­testinal tract, which I believe is the crux of the orig­inal paper. That paper never set out to prove an explicit link between autism and the MMR vac­cine. Nobody studying 12 sub­jects could con­ceive of proving a link. Wake­field found that sub­jects had gas­troin­testinal inflam­ma­tion and at least some of par­ents reported that they thought this occurred after their chil­dren received the MMR vaccine.

Our recent research has iden­ti­fied an amino acid trans­porter that may be involved in gas­troin­testinal inflam­ma­tion and might also con­tribute to the neu­ronal inflam­ma­tion that others have found in the brains of autistic chil­dren. A con­nec­tion between the gut and the brain in autism makes sense to me.

What is the link between vac­cines and autism?

Vac­cines pro­voke an immune response to an antigen derived from a virus or bac­teria. They can also con­tain agents, called adju­vants, such as alu­minum, which aug­ment the anti­body response and can pro­voke inflam­ma­tion throughout the body, as well as preser­v­a­tives such as mer­cury, in the form of thimerosal.

Alu­minum and mer­cury can enter the brain and remain for years, where they pro­voke neu­roin­flam­ma­tion. Inflam­ma­tion during child­hood can inter­fere with the normal mech­a­nisms by which gene expres­sion is con­trolled, leading to neu­rode­vel­op­mental dis­or­ders such as autism.

While the MMR vac­cine does not con­tain alu­minum or mer­cury, simul­ta­neous expo­sure to these three viruses induces inflam­ma­tion, which con­tributes to the cumu­la­tive effect of vac­cines on children.

It’s common for chil­dren to receive sev­eral vac­cines in a single doctor’s visit. As a result, they receive a tremen­dous dose of alu­minum, well beyond limits set by the U.S. Food and Drug Admin­is­tra­tion. This increases the chance of exces­sive inflam­ma­tion and a meta­bolic con­di­tion known as oxida­tive stress, which can dis­rupt devel­op­ment and/​or pre­cip­i­tate regres­sive autism. Studies of autistic chil­dren show that they have inflam­ma­tion and oxida­tive stress.

Why haven’t other studies shown a link between the MMR vac­cine and autism?

Most vac­cine safety studies have been epi­demi­o­log­ical in nature. They examine large population-​​based datasets rather than indi­vidual autistic sub­jects. The latter type of study has revealed the cen­tral role of oxida­tive stress and inflam­ma­tion, which could not be iden­ti­fied in epi­demi­o­log­ical studies.

Epi­demi­o­log­ical studies are intrin­si­cally unable to uncover causal mech­a­nisms, even if an asso­ci­a­tion was found. In my view, MMR vac­ci­na­tion is only a par­tial con­trib­utor, while other vac­cines con­tribute to the total risk of autism. Vac­cines are cer­tainly not the only agents con­tributing to autism, but it’s likely that the major cause is some kind of envi­ron­mental expo­sure, as opposed to a genetic abnormality.

In light of this, should par­ents have their chil­dren vac­ci­nated against MMR and other dis­eases?

Yes. I sup­port vac­ci­na­tion and safer vac­cines that don’t con­tain alu­minum or mercury.

Britain stripped Andrew Wake­field of his right to prac­tice med­i­cine. Was this jus­ti­fied?

No, not in my opinion. The eth­ical issues he was found guilty of were not of suf­fi­cient mag­ni­tude to jus­tify this penalty. More­over, doubt remains about whether there was sig­nif­i­cant and willful misconduct.

The British Gen­eral Med­ical Council and Brian Deer have con­spired to make an example of Wake­field for daring to sug­gest that vac­ci­na­tion may cause dis­ease in some individuals.

Wakefield’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of gas­troin­testinal inflam­ma­tion in autism will remain an impor­tant sci­en­tific con­tri­bu­tion. The mag­ni­tude of the effort to dis­credit him betrays a strong fear that his sug­ges­tion of a link to vac­ci­na­tion may be cor­rect. It amounts to a public pil­lo­rying that frightens others from inves­ti­gating this con­tro­ver­sial but impor­tant issue.