Background: Parents and physicians are understandably concerned about the causes and treatment of autism, a devastating disease that affects the entire family. Although much has been learned about autism, there are many gaps in our knowledge about what causes the disorder and how it can be prevented. Autistic symptoms occur along a spectrum, often referred to as autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). Concern has been raised about a possible association between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and ASD, especially autism with regression. Also, increased requests for educational services related to ASD have raised concerns about possible increases in the incidence of ASD.
Methods: On June 12-13, 2000, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) convened a conference titled "New Challenges in Childhood Immunizations" in Oak Brook, Illinois. At this conference, parents, practitioners, and scientists presented information and research on MMR vaccine and ASD. Attendees included representatives from select AAP committees and sections as well as federal and other organizations that address related issues. The multidisciplinary panel of experts reviewed data on what is known about the pathogenesis, epidemiology, and genetics of ASD and the available data on hypothesized associations with IBD, measles, and MMR vaccine. Supplemental information was requested from authors who have proposed the hypotheses and other experts in relevant areas.
Results: Autism is a complex disorder of uncertain and probably multiple etiologies. Genetic predisposition to ASD may involve as many as 10 genes. Many experts believe that the abnormal brain development in autism occurs before 30 weeks' gestation in most instances. In utero rubella is a known cause of autism. Animal model data support the biologic plausibility that exposure to yet unrecognized infectious or other environmental agents could cause ASD. Several factors may contribute to apparent increases in incidence of ASD in recent years. Most data indicate increased recognition and reporting as primary factors, but the epidemiologic data are insufficient to determine if there has been a true increase in the incidence of ASD. Increased reporting of ASD in recent years has occurred long after the introduction of MMR vaccine in the United States in 1971 and widespread use of this vaccine in the 1970s for routine immunization of children at 12 to 15 months of age. Appropriate detailed studies are needed to define the true incidence and prevalence of ASD. Epidemiologic studies in Europe indicate no association between MMR vaccine and ASD. Some children with ASD have gastrointestinal symptoms, but an increased rate of any specific gastrointestinal disorder in children with ASD has not been established. Studies to detect evidence of measles virus in intestinal tissue specimens from patients with IBD or autism with gastrointestinal symptoms have not used uniform techniques. Several laboratories have found no evidence of measles viruses in tissue specimens from patients with IBD, but 2 groups have found evidence of measles virus using different techniques. A group that found evidence of measles virus in affected tissue specimens from patients with IBD has also reported detecting portions of measles virus in peripheral blood lymphocytes and intestinal tissue specimens from patients with autism and gastrointestinal disorders. Finding a portion of a virus using molecular techniques does not constitute evidence for a causal relationship, because some viruses persist in unaffected hosts. Additional controlled studies in several laboratories are needed to determine if portions of measles virus persist in intestinal and other tissues of people with and without gastrointestinal disease and/or ASD.
Conclusions: Although the possible association with MMR vaccine has received much public and political attention and there are many who have derived their own conclusions based on personal experiences, the available evidence does not support the hypothesis that MMR vaccine causes autism or associated disorders or IBD. Separate administration of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines to children provides no benefit over administration of the combination MMR vaccine and would result in delayed or missed immunizations. Pediatricians need to work with families to ensure that children are protected early in the second year of life from these preventable diseases. Continued scientific efforts need to be directed to the identification of the causes of ASD.