WASHINGTON -- The editors of the British Medical Journal recently concluded that a 1998 study ringing alarm bells on a possible connection between vaccines and autism was actually an "elaborate fraud." It is the culmination of a more than decade-long controversy in which the charge was initially and frighteningly plausible, then embattled, then discredited by large-scale studies.
This is a particular blow to the parents of children with autism, who deserve more explanation and support than they are generally given. Autism has stubbornly resisted simple scientific explanation. This calls for more research and more practical help for parents -- not less.
The vaccine controversy in America and Europe was made possible by the success of vaccines. If children in developed countries faced the serious prospect of contracting measles, mumps and rubella -- leading, in some cases, to pneumonia, seizures, deafness, brain damage, infection of the spinal cord or arthritis -- the value of vaccines would be more immediately obvious. During the 20th century, an average of 650,000 people died each year from measles, polio, rubella, smallpox and diphtheria. Now it is less than 100.
Only countries that currently possess herd immunity debate the importance of vaccines. Yet not every country enjoys such an advantage.
Vaccines are among the greatest scientific contributions to human welfare. They are also some of the largest humanitarian contributions of developed nations to the rest of the world. So it is unfortunate that a decade of vaccine controversy has overshadowed a decade of vaccine miracles.
In 2000, with startup money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) began operation, with the goal of introducing new or underused vaccines into poor countries. GAVI is an acronym that reeks of global bureaucracy, slow-moving secretariats and Geneva consultations. The organization, in contrast, has turned out to be innovative and effective.
The alliance -- composed of foundations, donor governments, vaccine manufacturers, the World Bank and the World Heath Organization -- has employed the free market instead of fighting it. It has raised private capital, and it has made advance commitments to purchase vaccines, in exchange for pledges by pharmaceutical companies to expand production and provide vaccines at lower prices. It has helped to strengthen the "cold chain" that allows for vaccine delivery at proper temperatures.