The University of British Columbia is defending two of its researchers who have published vaccine-related studies discredited by the World Health Organization and described by several medical experts as weak and misleading.
Organizations that promote messages about the dangers of vaccines, such as the Children's Medical Safety Research Institute (CMSRI), have used the results of the UBC research as evidence that vaccines cause autism and other serious harm. The front page of the CMSRI website states that in a "landmark" 2013 paper, the two UBC researchers show that "the more children receive vaccines with aluminum adjuvants, the greater their chance is of developing autism, autoimmune diseases and neurological problems later in life." In that study, the researchers note that the rate of autism spectrum disorders increased along with the number of pediatric vaccines that contain aluminum.
The findings do not show that the vaccines caused the rates of autism to climb, and making that leap is scientifically irresponsible, said Michael Gardam, director of infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto. Correlation does not mean causation, he said, adding that kids are also exposed to more junk food these days, but that does not mean it causes autism.
"This is really disturbing stuff," Dr. Gardam said. "I'm not saying it's disturbing because people may … question vaccines." He said the problem for him is that the conclusions are misleading.
UBC declined an interview request on Wednesday. In an e-mail, Helen Burt, associate vice-president research and international, said the school "holds dear the value of academic freedom that allows faculty to challenge any and all established conventions."
David Juurlink, head of the division of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, said the researchers appear convinced aluminum in vaccines is dangerous, even though the amounts are too small to have any ill effects.
"The lines of reasoning used to support their various assertions are exceedingly thin, and in several instances, they draw inferences from their data that no objective reader could possibly draw," Dr. Juurlink said in an e-mail.
In 2012, the World Health Organization singled out two studies conducted by the UBC researchers suggesting a link between aluminum in vaccines and autism and said they provide no evidence of a causal link between vaccines and rising autism rates.
Numerous peer-reviewed, high-quality studies have shown that vaccines are not linked to autism. Although they are not risk-free, the incidence of adverse events linked to vaccination is low.
The studies were conducted by Christopher Shaw, a professor in the department of ophthalmology and visual sciences at UBC. Prof. Shaw, who is chair of the CMSRI's scientific advisory board, frequently collaborates with Lucija Tomljenovic, a post-doctoral research fellow in the department.
Neither Prof. Shaw nor Ms. Tomljenovic agreed to a telephone interview. In an e-mail, Prof. Shaw said the WHO is "entitled to its opinion" but that "I don't feel that those who actually work in aluminum toxicity research would agree with their critiques." He also compared the term "anti-vaccine" to a racial or ethnic slur.
Ms. Tomljenovic said their research has been peer-reviewed and published in respected medical journals. She added that "there are legitimate concerns regarding the safety of vaccines and attacking those who try to bring this issue to light is not going to solve the problem."
A number of medical experts contacted for this story said they support any type of academic research that is rigorous and uses high-quality methods. Research into vaccine safety is important and scientists are free to ask any questions they want, said Scott Halperin, a professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University.
"Academic freedom is very important to me, but I believe it has to be done responsibly," Dr. Halperin said.
But after looking at some of Prof. Shaw and Ms. Tomljenovic's research, the experts raised major concerns with the conclusions and interpretations.
"There's academic freedom and then there's academic responsibility," Dr. Gardam said.
Prof. Shaw's website says he has received nearly $900,000 from the Dwoskin Family Foundation, a U.S.-based group, and the Georgetown, Ont.-based Katlyn Fox Foundation. Both groups question the safety of vaccines.
Numerous experts, including Dr. Halperin and Dr. Gardam, said they do not have a problem with the source of the funding, noting that many researchers accept money from pharmaceutical companies and other entities.