A review of: Schultz, S.T., Klonoff-Cohen, H.S., Wingard, D.L., Akshoomoff, N.A., Macera, C.A., Ming Ji, . (2008). Acetaminophen (paracetamol) use, measles-mumps-rubella vaccination, and autistic disorder: The results of a parent survey. Autism, 12(3), 293-307. DOI: 10.1177/1362361307089518

A study in the latest issue of the journal Autism examined the possible role of acetaminophen use after MMR vaccine and autism. The authors provided an excellent review of the MMR vaccine-autism research, which indicates that although some clinical studies have found a link, most epidemiological studies have failed to find an association between MMR and autism. The authors noted that acetaminophen is commonly used to treat the adverse reaction of MMR vaccinations such a fever and rash. In addition, one study (Alberti et al, 1999) showed that some low functioning children with autism process acetaminophen differently. Thus, the authors proposed a innovative hypothesis: Does acetaminophen use after MMR vaccination increase the risk for Autism?

The authors recruited parents of typically developing children and children with autism via internet advertisement. The total sample included 83 parents completing the survey for children with autism and 80 parents completing the control survey. The surveys included a variety of questions about the child such as age, gender, what medications were used to prevent or treat reactions to the MMR vaccine, including aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen. The survey of parents of children with autism included additional questions about their children diagnosis such as whether a regression in development was observed.

The authors found that parents of children with autism reported:
- more adverse effects of MMR vaccine, including fever, diarrhea, irritability
- increased presence of concurrent illnesses with MMR vaccine
- more acetaminophen use after the MMR vaccine among children who had a reaction to the vaccine, children who had a regression in development, and those under 5.
- more acetaminophen use between 12 and 18 months of age
No association was found between ibuprofen use and autism.

A few caveats:
The finding that parents of children with autism reported more adverse effects of MMR vaccine or more concurrent illnesses with MMR vaccine is not overly informative. Note that these results were based on parental reports via internet with no possibility of verification of accuracy of such reports. So it is completely plausible to argue that given the extended media coverage of the vaccine-autism link, some parents of children with autism are more attuned to their children histories after vaccination and thus are more likely to remember or report complications. What is informative and actually interesting is that there was a significant difference in reports of acetaminophen use as compared to ibuprofen use. This difference can not easily be explained on the basis of some report bias. The problem is that acetaminophen use was reported much more frequently than ibuprofen use by all parents. So it could be argued that since parents of children with autism were more likely to report complications (even if just a by-product of recall bias), the use of acetaminophen will also appear to be different between the two groups.


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4 Responses to Acetaminophen use and Autism.

  1. raleigh says:

    In addition to your last point, I would add that it is acetaminophen, not ibuprofen, which is linked with “MMR-induced autism” in the antivaccine dogma. Parents who subscribe to this view have heard so often that acetaminophen after MMR produces autism that they regard it as common knowledge. Thus, I would not be surprised if some who gave ibuprofen converted it to acetaminophen in their recollections, or if they thought they remembered giving acetaminophen when actually they gave nothing.

  2. raleigh says:

    I’ve actually read a little more about this study since I left my last comment. It turns out the author advertised for study subjects in the notoriously anti-vaccine Schafer Autism Report. Hardly reaching a representative selection of autism parents with that one!

  3. Thank you Raleigh for your comments. Those factors definitely affect the validity of these results. Nestor

  4. Kels says:

    Raleigh’s deunking hypothesis might be a little more convincing were he to supply some data supporting his point that “. . . it is acetaminophen, not ibuprofen, which is linked with “MMR-induced autism” in the antivaccine dogma. Parents who subscribe to this view have heard so often that acetaminophen after MMR produces autism that they regard it as common knowledge”.

    If we are to disregard the possibly very informative study on the basis of Raleigh’s “facts”, is it now not incumbent on Raleigh to direct us to an appropriate number of examples of this ‘heard so often” and “common knowledge”. Or, perhaps just a half-dozen or so examples, if a more appropriately full demonstration of the putative “common knowledge” is regarded as too much work by Raleigh?

    I doubt that we will hear back from Raleigh? As a good debunker, he himself likely has found himself saying, “Conclusions are easy; offering supporting fact is indeed hard”.

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