A “disturbingly high” number of parents — 1 in 4 — believe that vaccines can cause autism in otherwise healthy children, researchers are reporting Monday.

The finding marks the first time researchers have asked parents about their thoughts on the relationship between vaccines and autism. It comes as part of a wider study on parental perceptions of vaccines published online ahead of the April issue of the journal Pediatrics. The study is based on data collected from a national survey of 1552 parents.

Though some parents have expressed concerns for years about a link between vaccines and autism, it remained unclear until now exactly how pervasive the worries were. The new finding indicates that apprehensions run high, with 23 percent of parents believing that vaccines can cause autism, a statistic that is alarming to researchers who say there’s no credible evidence of a link.

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“It means that the public health community and the medical community isn’t doing a good enough job in providing information to parents to help them understand the risks and benefits to vaccines,” says Dr. Gary L. Freed, director of general pediatrics at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study.

Widespread concerns about a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine emerged from a now discredited 1998 study conducted by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

Numerous studies since found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Nonetheless, many parents — cheered on by a handful of celebrities and doctors — remain convinced the two are associated, leading some parents not to vaccinate their children.

Earlier this month, Wakefield’s study was officially retracted from The Lancet, a prominent British medical journal where his findings were initially published. The retraction came after a British medical panel recently determined that the doctor acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in conducting his research.

The study published Monday looking at parental beliefs about vaccines was conducted before the Wakefield study was retracted and Freed acknowledges that recent events could have altered parent perceptions.

Despite the high level of parental concern reported in the study, the vast majority of parents do vaccinate their children. Just 11.5 percent of parents said they refused a vaccine that was recommended by their child’s doctor. And in the vast majority of cases, it wasn’t the MMR vaccine that they declined.

Of those who did decline the MMR vaccine, most said they did so because they had read or heard about problems with it.

Even though most parents do end up vaccinating their children, Freed says concerns about vaccines need to be addressed.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of angst that goes along with that concern and that concern can also be translated into either hesitancy or refusal of vaccines that can prevent life threatening diseases in children,” says Freed. “I think that oftentimes we in the health community dance around different issues and perhaps what we really need to do is address specific concerns that parents have in a deliberate way.”

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