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Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure

Friday October 2008


Paul A. Offit, M.D. Chief of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia; Maurice R. Hilleman Professor of Vaccinology and Professor of Pediatrics, University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine

Parents with autistic children struggle to understand a disease that seemingly strikes out of nowhere and for which modern medicine has no effective treatments. For decades, a cadre of false prophets has played on parents’ hopes and fears by offering bad science to explain the disease and snake oil cures to treat it.

This sad history got even worse in 1998, when a London researcher asserted that the combination measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism. Building on this “discovery” a handful of parents declared that a mercury-containing preservative in several vaccines was responsible for the disease.

Although the claim was later thoroughly discredited, it led to even worse treatments: children with autism were placed on radical diets, immersed in high-temperature saunas, and asked to swallow everything from enzymes to activated charcoal. Some of these treatments, although useless, were at least harmless. Others hurt, or even killed, the children they were supposed to help. Thousands of parents, alarmed by media reports, withheld vaccinations from their children. Lacking protection from routine childhood diseases, some of these children later became ill—and some died needlessly.