Mayor Tom Barrett is disputing recent comments from Milwaukee’s new top health official about a possible link between some vaccines and autism.

“I’m not a scientist, but everything I’ve read is that the science is settled,” Barrett said Monday. “There is no link between the vaccinations for measles and mumps in particular and autism. This is not a question that is still unresolved. It is settled.”

Barrett’s comments, made at a news conference about flu risks, came in response to interim Health Commissioner Patricia McManus telling a radio audience last week that “the science is still out” on whether there’s a link between some vaccines and autism.

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McManus, who was recently chosen by the Common Council to lead the troubled Milwaukee Health Department, was asked during a radio show Wednesday about whether the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism in children.

“I don’t think the answer is yet there. I mean, there’s still people who believe it,” McManus said on “The Forum” talk show on WNOV-AM (860). “And so I don’t know. I think the science is still out. I think that’s a decision that these families are going to have to make on their own at this point.”

Her comments drew sharp criticism from several experts in the field, who cited research by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health.

McManus quickly clarified her comments, telling the Journal Sentinel in a Friday interview that she doesn’t personally believe vaccines cause autism.

“I wasn’t questioning the science,” she said. “I think clearly most public health people, and most doctors in general, believe that even if you have issues with it, the best thing to do is to still get the immunization.”

McManus added that she “is not going anywhere telling people not to get immunized.”

McManus, a registered nurse with a doctorate in urban studies, said her daughter received all her immunizations as a child and all her grandchildren have been immunized. 

The city Health Department plays a leading role in promoting immunizations and investigates outbreaks of infectious diseases. 

“The Health Department’s position for many, many years is that there is no link between autism and these vaccinations,” Barrett said. “The position of the Health Department has not changed.”

Barrett has not yet said whether he will sign off on McManus’ appointment, saying he will decide by late Thursday.

The mayor criticized the Common Council’s appointment of McManus as “unprecedented.”

“You can’t just rush something like this through,” Barrett said. “There were obviously additional questions that were not asked about this and other health-related things.”

Barrett also said Monday that 611 flu-related hospitalizations have been reported to the Milwaukee Health Department as health officials Monday reminded people that it’s not too late to get a flu shot this season.

The number marks a significant increase over previous seasons, and influenza-like illness levels remain high statewide, with more than 4,300 hospitalizations reported, city officials said.

“Even healthy people can get the flu,” Barrett said. “Even if you can fight it, you could still spread it to others who might get very sick or face serious complications.”

Barrett urged all Milwaukee residents to take the advice of health officials to “protect yourself and the people that you care about, especially those at highest risk for complications.”

“These steps include getting your flu shot if you have not already,” Barrett said, reminding people that even if they do get sick, the flu vaccine may make symptoms less severe.

“A simple flu shot could mean the difference between being home sick or being hospitalized,” Barrett said.

Young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions such as asthma, heart disease and blood disorders are at higher risk of developing severe flu complications, Health Department officials said.

The department recommends the flu vaccine for anyone older than 6 months and urges people to cover coughs and sneezes with the crooks of their elbows.

People should also wash their hands frequently. The flu virus is spread through the air when someone who is sick coughs, sneezes or speaks, and washing hands frequently with soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, can also help prevent the spread of the flu, health officials said.

Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, stuffy nose, muscle or body aches and fatigue.

People who get sick should stay home from work or school, get rest and drink plenty of fluids, the Health Department said.

People should contact their health care providers if they are at risk for complications, or if flu symptoms persist or worsen, officials said.

Antiviral medications can reduce the severity and duration of the illness in individuals at risk for complications associated with the flu, especially for those with persistent or severe symptoms.

To find a flu vaccine clinic near you, use the Flu Vaccine Finder at www.milwaukee.gov/health.

 

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