A link has been postulated between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and a form of autism that is a combination of developmental regression and gastrointestinal symptoms that occur shortly after immunization. This hypothesis has involved 3 separate claims: 1) that there is new phenotype of autism involving regression and gastrointestinal symptoms, 2) that this new variant is responsible for the alleged rise of autism rates, and 3) that this phenotype is associated with biological findings suggestive of the persistence of measles infection. We tested the first of these claims. If this new “autistic enterocolitis” syndrome had some validity, then 1 or several of the following 6 predictions should be supported by empirical data: 1) childhood disintegrative disorder has become more frequent, 2) the mean age of first parental concern for autistic children who are exposed to MMR is closer to the mean immunization age than in children who are not exposed to MMR, 3) regression in the development of children with autism has become more common in MMR-vaccinated children, 4) the age of onset for autistic children with regression clusters around the MMR immunization date and is different from that of autistic children without regression, 5) children with regressive autism have distinct symptom and severity profiles, and 6) regressive autism is associated with gastrointestinal symptoms and/or inflammatory bowel disorder.
Three samples were used. Epidemiologic data on 96 children (95 immunized with MMR at a median age of 13.5 months) who were born between 1992 and 1995 and had a pervasive developmental disorder diagnosis as reported in a recent UK survey (post-MMR sample) were compared with data from 2 previous clinical samples (1 pre-MMR [n = 98] and 1 post-MMR [n = 68]) of autistic patients. All patients were assessed with the standardized Autism Diagnostic Interview (ADI), allowing rigorous comparison of age at first parental concerns and rates of regression across samples. Reliability was excellent on ADI scores, age of parental concern, and developmental regression. Furthermore, data on bowel symptoms and disorders were available in the epidemiologic survey from both pediatric and parental sources, and immunization dates were obtained from computerized records.
The prevalence of childhood disintegrative disorder was 0.6/10 000 (95% confidence interval: 0.02–3.6/10 000); this very low rate is consistent with previous estimates and is not suggestive of an increased frequency of this form of pervasive developmental disorder in samples of children who are immunized with MMR. There was no difference in the mean age at first parental concern between the 2 samples exposed to MMR (19.3 and 19.2 months) and the pre-MMR sample (19.5 months). Thus, MMR immunization was not associated with a shift toward an earlier age for first parental concerns. Similarly, the rate of developmental regression reported in the post-MMR sample (15.6%) was not different from that in the pre-MMR sample (18.4%); therefore, there was no suggestion that regression in the developmental course of autism had increased in frequency since MMR was introduced. In the epidemiologic sample, the subset of autistic children with regression had no other developmental or clinical characteristics, which would have argued for a specific, etiologically distinct phenotype. Parents of autistic children with developmental regression detected the first symptoms at a very similar age (19.8 months) to those of autistic children without regression (19.3 months). Moreover, the mean intervals from MMR immunization to parental recognition of autistic symptoms were comparable in autistic children with or without regression (248 vs 272 days; not significant). In the epidemiologic sample, gastrointestinal symptoms were reported in 18.8% of children. Constipation was the most common symptom (9.4%), and no inflammatory bowel disorder was reported. Furthermore, there was no association between developmental regression and gastrointestinal symptoms (odds ratio: 0.63; 95% confidence interval: 0.06–3.2; not significant), and only 2.1% of the sample experienced both problems, a rate that did not exceed chance expectations.
No evidence was found to support a distinct syndrome of MMR-induced autism or of “autistic enterocolitis.” These results add to the recent accumulation of large-scale epidemiologic studies that all failed to support an association between MMR and autism at population level. When combined, the current findings do not argue for changes in current immunization programs and recommendations.