The safety of the MMR innoculation, the combination vaccine given to young children and widely supported by scientists, will be questioned again this week in a presentation that claims to provide proof of a link to autism.
American researchers say that their study supports the findings of Andrew Wakefield, the discredited gastroenterologist who raised fears that the measles, mumps and rubella injection might be causing autism.
Uptake of the vaccine decreased sharply after Dr Wakefield suggested that MMR should be avoided in favour of single vaccinations. His research, published in The Lancet in 1998, detected traces of the measles virus in the guts of 12 children with autism.
The latest study, led by Arthur Krigsman, of New York University School of Medicine, involved 275 children. Serious intestinal inflammations were found in some of the autistic children and biopsies of gut tissue were performed on 82 of them. Of these, 70 are said to have shown evidence of the measles virus, which so far has been confirmed in 14 cases by more stringent DNA tests.
Steve Walker, assistant professor at Wake Forest University Medical Centre, North Carolina, who analysed the gut samples, said the work mirrored Dr Wakefield’s study. All the children involved were diagnosed with autism and had come to Dr Krigsman and Dr Walker seeking help for symptoms of serious digestive problems for which no explanation could be found.
The research, which is being presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Montreal this week, has yet to be published in a scientific journal and subjected to peer review.
Mainstream science has repeatedly examined the theory of a link between MMR and autism and found no evidence to back it. Supporters of the theory are accused of interpreting two biological occurrences as a causative relationship that does not exist.
Uptake of MMR, which was introduced into Britain in 1988, has improved in recent years, but remains as low as 70 per cent in the wake of ongoing questioning of its possible side-effects. The World Health Organisation recommends 95 per cent coverage, and the shortfall has been blamed for contributing to rising rates of measles and mumps in recent years.
A recent analysis of 31 MMR studies by the Cochrane Library, one of the most authoritative sources of evidence-based medicine, showed no credible grounds for claims of serious harm.
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