'Autism is not a big scary monster'|
CARDIFF, Wales: Martine O’Callaghan always knew that there was something different about her son Cledwyn. At two years old, Cledwyn, who is now five, was diagnosed as being severely autistic, and after having gone back and forth to physiotherapy and occupations therapy, Martine says it was "very obvious" that her son had autism.
Following the diagnosis, Martine, 37, from Fairwater in Cardiff, became a full-time carer for Cledwyn, who is her only child, but says she has found plenty of support from schools and healthcare professionals.
She said: "He was diagnosed at two years of age, but to us it had been obvious he was autistic. We have had some great support and his school has been wonderful. He is hard work but he is an absolute joy to be around. On a day-to-day-basis, most people are quite sympathetic and many people want to know more about the condition. I find that once people realise that Cledwyn is not just being a naughty boy, they are sympathetic."
But she says there is still a perception that autism should be feared and she says the recent measles epidemic and the concerns surrounding the MMR injection has fuelled that fear.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a piece of research that linked the MMR vaccine to autism, prompting many parents to choose not to have their children vaccinated against the potentially fatal disease. And although the research has since been strongly discredited, there is still a widespread fear about the safety of the vaccine.
The measles epidemic, which has reached 1,061 to become one of the biggest in the UK since the introduction of MMR in 1988, is believed to have been caused by this fear.
Since the start of the outbreak, which is centred on the Swansea region, health officials have been desperately reassuring parents that the vaccine is safe. School vaccination programmes are continuing across the country as health officials try to target the some 40,000 unvaccinated children in the at-risk age group of 10 to 18.
More than 33,000 non-routine vaccinations have been given across Wales during the outbreak, but only just over 8,000 of these were in that age group.
Dr Marion Lyons, director of health protection for Public Health Wales, said: "Our message is clear – the MMR vaccine is safe and it works, and there is no reason why children not vaccinated in the late 1990s because of fears about the safety of the vaccine should not be immunised now.
"While not enough 10- to 18-year-olds in particular are vaccinated, this outbreak can easily spread anywhere in Wales. Therefore, we urge young people themselves and the parents of children, to take up opportunities to receive the MMR vaccine as a matter of urgency. Those not vaccinated are highly likely to catch measles, which is highly contagious. It is just a matter of time before a child is left with serious and permanent complications such as eye disorders, deafness or brain damage, or dies.
"The MMR vaccine is recommended by the World Health Organisation, UK Department of Health and Public Health Wales as the most effective and safe way to protect children against measles."
And Martine says she has no doubt whatsoever that the MMR vaccine is safe and is urging parents not to be frightened.
She said: "One of the questions I often get asked is whether we had Cledwyn vaccinated against measles. He was vaccinated. The link between the vaccine and autism is a myth that seems to have been perpetuating over the years and still exists. Even 15 years on and after Wakefield was struck off, people are still talking about it. It's the story that has been played out so many times in the media and people seem to believe that the vaccine causes autism, when there is no proof.
"It's hard when people look at my child sometimes, and particularly when he used to go to some playgroups, and think that they don't want their child to be like that. People would ask the question about the vaccination as if to say: 'how can I make sure that is not my child'?
"There are challenges and there are difficulties in having an autistic child, because the world has not been created around their way of seeing things. But autism is not something to be scared of. Autism is not a big scary monster that is going to take your child away - my son is not a monster, he is a beautiful, lovely little boy.
"I really have to say that I am fed up of people seeing it as a choice between autism and measles - that is utterly false. It's false in two ways – there is no proven link between autism and the vaccine and an autistic child can still get measles. Meanwhile, a child who gets measles may still go on to have autism. It is a completely false choice and I am fed up with parents of autistic children being represented by those who have fallen for Wakefield’s lies and believe the MMR vaccine caused autism."
Martine, who holds a science degree, said she never had any fear about the vaccine stemming from the Wakefield research. She said: "When a study is submitted to a scientific journal, it goes through a number of stages, at any of which its publication could be rejected. The MMR-autism farrago was not facilitated by flaws in the peer review system, though they do exist. In fact, four of the six reviewers of the study rejected Wakefield's paper.
"I remember when Wakefield’s research first came out, someone I knew had just had a child and they asked me to look at it. I had just finished my science degree and I remember back in 1998 looking at that paper and thinking: how on earth did he get this published? This research had a hypothesis that is set out to prove, not to test. They already knew what they wanted to find.
"I have not really closely followed the vaccine debate since, but I know that I had no worries or qualms in getting Cledwyn vaccinated."
Martine has also set up various groups and a website called Autismum to help support parents with autistic children.
(Source: Wales Online, May 9, 2013)