New fear over MMR link with rising autismBy Stephen Adams
A new study claims that almost double the number of children could have autism as previously thought.
An unpublished piece of research by Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre (ARC) found that as many as one in 58 children could suffer from the condition, which can affect speech, understanding and communication.
If the figure was accurate it would mean 210,000 children under 16 across Britain could have some form of autism.
Previous studies have estimated about one in 100 children has autism or an "autism spectrum disorder" such as Asperger's syndrome.
The ARC's study is one of the largest to date, being based on the incidence of autism in 12,000 primary school children in Cambridgeshire between 2001 and 2004.
Two of the seven experts who contributed towards the study, Dr Fiona Scott and Dr Carol Stott, are reported to have said in private that they thought the high figure could be linked to the use of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. However, last night Dr Scott denied this was the case.
She said the main purpose of the study was to look at how different methods of assessing the prevalence of autism could affect the final outcome.
She said the one in 58 figure was the highest out of three methods tested, and that the other two did not differ significantly from previous findings.
"The figure is one of several we researched," she said. "One of the elements of the research was how different methodologies can affect the result. One of the figures was one in 58. The other figures were lower than that.
"I absolutely do not think that the rise in autism is related to MMR. My own daughter is getting vaccinated with the MMR jab on July 17.
"My position is and always has been that if there are children who have been damaged by the MMR vaccine it is the same proportion of children who have been damaged by other vaccines."
She said she thought the MMR jab could cause a form a brain damage similar to autism in a "very, very small number of children".
Autism is the term given to a wide range of development disorders that affect an individual's ability to understand the world and communicate with others.
It covers a "spectrum" ranging from severe cases of "classic" autism - which often renders a child unable to speak - to much milder Asperger's syndrome, which can affect a person's ability to socialise.
Until the early 1990s experts believed only four or five people in 10,000 suffered from the condition. Since then studies have shown autism is much more common, with experts generally agreeing on the one in 100 figure.
Academics agree that much of the apparent increase can be explained by the fact that more people are now aware of what autism is.
Last year a study reported in the medical journal The Lancet put forward an estimate that one in 86 children suffered from some form of autism.
The ARC study was purely statistical and did not examine the possible medical causes of autism.
The new research will spark renewed doubts among concerned parents about the safety of the triple vaccine.
The percentage of children being given the jab fell dramatically after doubts were raised over its safety in 1998.
A Health Protection Agency spokesman said the MMR vaccine was safe.
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