What autism, climate change and Obama's birth certificate have in common

Myth.  A small 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield claimed to find a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, setting off a panic that led to dropping immunization rates, and subsequent outbreaks. Since then, the study's been deemed flawed, and it's been retracted by the journal that published it. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine released a report that found no scientific evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In September 2010, the CDC published similar results. "It's more risky for your child to not be vaccinated," says Dr. Carrie Nelson, chair of the Commission on Health of the Public and Science for the American Academy of Family Physicians. More from Health.com: 12 vaccines your child needs istockphoto

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(CBS) Obama doesn't have an American birth certificate, climate change isn't real and evolution is a scientific fantasy. If a recent survey is any indication, you can add the widely disproved autism vaccine link to the pile of ideas Americans love to believe regardless of the research stacked against it.

First the facts (about autism, not Obama's birth certificate which was released today).

In 1998, the British medical journal "The Lancet" published a ground-breaking article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that purported to show a link between certain cases of autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella called MMR. Almost all children in the developed world receive the shot.

The idea caught on like wild fire with parents terrified their children could "catch" autism or angry that they had already developed it. Actress Jenny McCarthy became the most visible celebrity pushing the theory.

But future studies could not reproduce Wakefield's results and the scientific house came crumbling down. Last year, "The Lancet," recanted Wakefield's article. Ten of the study's 13 authors had already done so. In January, a British Medical Journal investigation accused Wakefield of ginning up the evidence to make his case. He has vehemently denied it.

It turns out many parents still believe his theory. A recent University of Michigan public opinion survey on vaccines found 65 percent of parents trusted other parents who felt vaccines had harmed their children. Twenty four percent also put some trust in celebrities like McCarthy on the issue.

"I don't understand why when a celebrity says something about which they have no training, that is reported more than someone who has done rigorous scientific training," study author Gary Freed told Time.

The news isn't all bad. Most parents, 76 percent, said they trusted a doctor's advice first, which we presume is based on scientific evidence.

The government estimates more than 30,000 kids will be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder this year. That number has been climbing over the decades, although it's not clear if the diagnosis has broadened, doctors are more sensitive to the condition or its prevalence is growing. Symptoms can range from problems with social interaction to significant delays in language and learning ability. In some cases, obsessive interests and compulsive behaviors are present. Symptoms typically appear before the age of three and last a life time. For many "on the spectrum" early intervention and specialized education can make a huge difference.

As for Obama's birth certificate, no amount of education seems to make a dent. Only 28 percent of GOP voters in a February poll believed the president was born in America. And evolution? Forty percent of Americans still aren't buying that one either.

  • Neil Katz

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