Despite experts and health organizations refuting the theory of a connection between vaccines and autism, recent events have brought the debate front and center in the news once again.
But are the media actually doing a disservice to the public by continuing to bring up vaccines when discussing autism?
"Do I think they've done a disservice? Yes," said Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
"I think any concern should be heard, and anything that's plausible should be investigated. But once we get to that point and scientists think it's no longer a valid hypothesis, we shouldn't continue to propagate it."
Representatives from the National Autism Association agree that the media has been misinforming the public, but for different reasons.
"A lot of news reports are saying that thimerosal has been completely removed from all vaccines, which is not true, so we've been very disappointed in how the media is covering this story," said Wendy Fournier, president of the group.
Fournier said parents should be completely informed before deciding whether or not to vaccinate their children, and should use information from the FDA and other sources to make that choice.
Promoting Vaccination Fears?
Poland said one of the major implications of the press continuing to cover this debate is that many parents are not getting their children vaccinated against common childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps and rubella.
These preventable diseases can lead to death or severe impairments in children. For many researchers, this brings up concerns about public health in the United States.
"Measles is the most contagious disease known to humans. You have to have 96 to 98 percent of the population immunized to stop the circulation of the virus," Poland said.
Because outbreaks of childhood diseases do not regularly occur in this country, parents may conclude that they are no longer a threat and that vaccinations against them are not necessary. Poland disagrees with this notion.
"[If] there's an importation of a case, everyone around that area who is susceptible gets that disease. For measles, there's a certain percentage: three out of 1,000 who will die, and others will have encephalitis -- an infection of the brain -- and will never be the same again. Some will be hospitalized and some will have a mild disease course," he said.
Many parents also come to Jim Carr, a Western Michigan University psychologist who leads an outpatient autism clinic, with vaccination concerns that are often born out of reports in the media. Like most scientists in the field, he considers the association between vaccines and autism to be unfounded.
"My wife and I are both scientists who study autism, and we had a child four years ago," he said. "We got her fully vaccinated because we weren't that convinced in the evidence and were more concerned with the public health implications of not getting her vaccinated.
"That's a personal story that we tell [worried parents] -- this is a very strong opinion and it's based on research."
Fostering False Hope
Aside from the concerns about an epidemic of preventable diseases, researchers find that media coverage of the vaccine debate has had other detrimental effects, such as falsely leading parents to believe that there may be a silver bullet for curing or preventing autism.
"I think one of the dangers of the vaccine myth, besides the public health consequences of not getting vaccinated, is that it gives the notion that there is something specific out there that if we could just find it and remove it, autism would go away," said Carr.
"Unfortunately the research is showing that autism is a very complicated disorder that has many different causes, and I just don't think there are easy fixes out there."
Some researchers also worry that the media's attention to the vaccine debate misinforms the public and may lead some to consider the debate to be one of nature versus nurture with no overlap between the two.
"That I think is the danger -- that it could be simplified to a genetics versus environmental toxin debate," said Dr. Ernest Krug, director of the Center for Human Development at the William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich.
"People generally think it's either a biological problem or an environmental problem. I think that most people in the medical field feel it's a combination of genetic susceptibility and environmental triggers -- and we're still a long way from understanding what we'd like to know in either of those areas."
He said effects of the nature-versus-nurture battle are most felt in economic terms, as those in different camps tend to argue over how available funds should be spent.
"There's no question that we should be spending money on research, and hopefully people won't spend a lot of time arguing about which research to support more," he said. "Clearly there are things to be learned in all fronts."
In addition, clinicians expressed concern that parents who are focused on environmental poisons, because of overexposure of that possibility through the media, may be less likely to seek behavioral treatments, like applied behavior analysis, which have shown promise in scientific studies.
"People who believe it's an environmental toxin don't actively look for behavioral therapies," Krug said. "Applied behavior analysis is the one evidence-based intervention that we have in autistic work, so it's unfortunate that families might draw that conclusion."
The Balance Problem
In the end, some scientists suggest the issue may be a fundamental flaw in the way the news is reported.
"The average media article is not an attempt to show the truth, but an attempt to show both sides," Poland said. "That philosophical way of doing business, I think, leads to more harm than good and more confusion than understanding.
"I think part of it is sensationalism. I think that's what sells. But it's too bad because I think it misinforms people, and children in part end up getting hurt because of it."