Anyone who repeats this falsehood is ignoring the weight of scientific research (here, here, here, here and here). They may as well claim something ridiculous like, for example, watching a Robert De Niro film makes it more likely you get arthritis.
Let me explain.
Robert De Niro has been a working actor since 1965 and has played parts in more than 90 films – including works like “Little Fockers,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” and the recent DVD-first release “Freelancers.”
Given the size of his oeuvre it is a statistical certainty that someone, somewhere who has watched one of Mr De Niro’s films has developed arthritis at around the same time or shortly thereafter.
But, just because a person first notices joint problems after seeing “Righteous Kill” it does not indicate there is a causal link. It is a coincidence.
Wag the dog
Confusing coincidence with causality is where anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists are going wrong according to Professor Anthony Scott from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Scott told us proponents should ask themselves “can you distinguish between evidence of association and evidence of causality when something happens in temporal relationship to a vaccine?”
The suggestion vaccines cause autism is based partly on an observed increase in autism cases in the US in the 1980s at around the time Government programmes increased use of vaccines containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal.
But US autism rates continued to rise after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, indicating the increase was a coincidence rather than cause and effect. Subsequent research (available here) also illustrated there is no link between vaccines and autism.
Meet the Fockers
Coincidently*, last week "Meet the Fockers" star Robert De Niro and US radio personality Robert F Kennedy Jr raised questions about vaccines at an event in Washington D.C., US.
During the press conference, De Niro, who has an autistic son, and Kennedy offered a $100,000 prize to anyone who can find a study showing it is safe to administer vaccines to children and pregnant women.
Heidi Larson, Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, thinks this kind of high profile support for scientific falsehoods could discourage parents from vaccinating their children.
Dr Larson told us: “These impacts vary by country and situation, but we have seen measles outbreaks and a measles death in Berlin and diphtheria death in Spain in recent years – diseases for which there have been vaccines available – and preventing such deaths for decades.”
She also rejected the suggestion vaccine safety needs to be proven, telling us “Vaccine safety studies continue after clinical trials into “post-marketing surveillance” continuing monitoring of any safety concerns following the introduction of the vaccines.”
*I'll be honest, it's cause and effect. Their press conference prompted me to write this article.