LONDON — The anti-vaccine movement has come for the pets.
A spreading fear of pet vaccines’ side effects has prompted the British Veterinary Association to issue a startling statement this week: Dogs cannot develop autism.
The implicit message was that dog owners should keep vaccinating their pets against diseases like distemper and canine hepatitis because any concerns that the animals would develop autism after the injections were unfounded.
The warning has a long tail. It grew out of an anti-vaccine theory that rippled across the United States and Europe as networks known as “anti-vaxxers” claimed that childhood vaccinations could cause autism. The belief, promoted by some celebrities like television personality Jenny McCarthy, who says her son has autism, spurred many parents to begin boycotting traditional vaccines.
The theory gained prominence in 1998, after a study published in the medical journal The Lancet purported to show a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella vaccination. It caused a firestorm in health circles and among parents, resulting in a significant drop in vaccination rates for children in Britain.
But the study has since been thoroughly discredited. It was formally retracted by the medical magazine and its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, who at the time was a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital in London, was subsequently struck off the British medical register over ethical lapses.
The theory, however, has jumped species. It is increasingly being applied to pets in the United States and is gaining momentum in Britain — raising concerns that the already low vaccination rates in this country could fall further.
Those who fear vaccine side effects in their dogs claim the animals could develop canine autism, thyroid disease and arthritis.
Then, on Monday, the television show “Good Morning Britain” on ITV put out a call on Twitter to hear from dog owners who believed their pets showed symptoms of autism after receiving vaccinations, and from others who had stopped getting their pets vaccinated against dangerous diseases.
The next day, the veterinary association put out a statement on Twitter.
“We are aware of an increase in anti-vaccination pet owners in the U.S. who have voiced concerns that vaccinations may lead to their dogs developing autism-like behavior. There’s currently no reliable scientific evidence to indicate autism in dogs (or its link to vaccines),” the association said in its tweet.
It added: “Potential side effects of vaccines are rare and outweighed by the benefits in protecting against disease. BVA would be happy to provide evidence-based information on the issue.”
Many dog owners criticized the TV program for reporting what they called baseless anti-vaccine conspiracies. But others were intrigued: “I can’t believe I’m saying this but, how could you even tell your dog had autism?” one Twitter user asked.
The support for vaccinating pets was echoed by other agencies.
Britain’s independent Veterinary Products Committee, which reviewed all authorized dog and cat vaccines in the United Kingdom between 1999 and 2002, concluded that the “overall risk/benefit analysis strongly supports the continued use of vaccines.”
“It is extremely rare for any serious side effects to follow vaccinations,” the British Veterinary Medicines Directorate said in a statement. “Any adverse effect is generally far outweighed by the benefit of protection against serious disease.” For a time, the anti-vaxxer movement in the United States gave rise to a public health crisis in at least 14 states, as outbreaks of measles, a disease that health officials had long declared beaten, reappeared in alarming numbers.
In 2017, Minnesota reported the largest outbreak of measles in almost 30 years. New measles cases popped up in Nebraska and Minnesota, New York and Marin County, California.
Fear of vaccines spread to Europe, and cases of measles rose in 2017, with the virus finding its way into areas with unvaccinated children from Romania to Britain. At least 35 children died of the disease in 2017, according to the World Health Organization.
Italy had 5,006 cases of measles and three deaths last year; 88 percent of those cases were in people never vaccinated, the European Center for Prevention and Disease Control said.
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