Why Doesn't the Autism-Vaccine Debate Go Away?


Measles broke out in California for the first time in quite a while—the result of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children for the disease. While, granted, most people do survive measles, some (especially the very young and physically vulnerable) don't.

What could possibly motivate parents to avoid vaccinations that would protect their children from significant risk? The media tells us that most vaccine rejection is based on a fear that vaccines will cause children to become autistic. And apparently anything, even the return of nearly-eradicated serious diseases, is better than the risk of autism.

Not long ago, I heard a radio guest (with solid credentials) claim that thousands of parents are rejecting vaccines based on a now-debunked 1992 study by Andrew Wakefield et al, which sorta kinda linked autism to measles vaccine. Almost all of the doctors involved with the study have since repudiated it and the study itself was officially rejected by the medical journal. Oh, and Wakefield lost his license. 

But could this little, debunked study run over 12 years ago really be the cause of a major movement? Why would people continue to believe in a study that has been so thoroughly proven wrong and even unethical? In fact, while Wakefield's study was an important contributing factor to the anti-vaccine movement, it most certainly and unfortunately isn't the sole cause! 

During the 1990's and well into the 2000's, the media jumped on the Wakefield story. And some alternative media even turned Wakefield himself into a martyr. The thinking goes something like this: "Wakefield stumbled upon the truth about vaccines. They are poisons. Because vaccines make big money, however, he has been silenced." 

Wakefield quickly became a celebrity in some circles and attempts to "debunk" his study have become more "proof" of a conspiracy against him. Wakefield continues to speak to huge crowds at certain types of autism conferences which focus on "alternative" theories for autism causation and cure.

The idea of an autism-related vaccine conspiracy (i.e. "Big Pharma is knowingly poisoning our children with vaccines, but will never admit it because they make so much money on the vaccines, so they'll destroy anyone who blows the whistle") has taken root for several reasons.

"Autism" has been redefined multiple times over the last 30 years, resulting in huge, "unexplained" leaps in diagnoses. Statistics may not lie, but they are very confusing. For example (and there are many other examples), Asperger syndrome was "invented" as a diagnostic category in the late 1980's. The diagnosis of one person with Asperger syndrome, at that point, would be a 100 percent increase in diagnoses!

In addition, the definition of autism, in general, was expanded radically to include people with a huge range of symptoms. It's not hard to create a chart showing incredible growth in autism diagnoses, but it's surprisingly hard to explain that growth in simple, understandable language.

Then, during the mid-2000's, starlet Jenny McCarthy turned the vaccine-autism issue into a full scale media event with her books, TV appearances, live appearances, and other media happenings. She was absolutely convinced, based on her "University of Google" knowledge, that her son Evan was vaccine injured—and she had a huge impact on public thinking about the issue.

Autism Speaks, which (because of its deep pockets and close connections to media and Broadway) became the 500 pound gorilla of autism awareness, began taking the idea of an autism-vaccine connection seriously. This was the outcome of various machinations within the Wright family which runs Autism Speaks. 

While the older Wrights (grandparents of autistic grandson Christian) were not really supporters of the idea, their daughter Katie (mother to Christian) was convinced that Christian was vaccine injured. To keep peace within the family, Autism Speaks routed some funding into research that looked at a possible vaccine-autism connection. This led many to believe that there was "no smoke without fire."

The federal government runs a vaccine injury compensation program—because, in point of fact, vaccines can on occasion cause injury. Several families instituted high-profile lawsuits to claim compensation based on their child's autism or "autism-like" injuries.  Some people received compensation, though the circumstances were very specific (the child had pre-existing physical issues).  This led to more speculation that we were looking at the tip of an iceberg of vaccine injuries.

The NIH and CDC funded several large-scale studies which absolutely refuted the idea that there could be any connection between autism and vaccines. While some people were convinced by these studies, those who already believed in a conspiracy saw this as yet more proof of a conspiracy between Big Government and Big Pharma. That these findings were supported by independent international studies seemed to be irrelevant.

Online bloggers (some with medical degrees) became well-known household names within a certain community of people. These individuals explained that (despite studies by hundreds of scientists around the world) it was clear that vaccines for infants and toddlers represented a "too much too soon" approach to preventive medicine. Clearly, the theory went, "pounding" all those germs and chemicals into infants and toddlers was doing children grave injury in the form of causing autism. 

More online bloggers, along with autism conference organizers, promoted "cures" for autism which involved "detoxing" children from "poisons" introduced through a variety of means, ranging from vaccines to air pollution to chemical dyes in products and foods. Stories were promoted of children being "cured" of autism through these means. Whether or not these stories are true is, obviously, a matter of speculation.

Mainstream researchers have published multiple studies which suggest that autism is a disorder with "a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger." In other words, you're not born autistic, you're born with a predisposition to autism which can only be set off by something negative in the environment.  What could that "environmental trigger" be? There are many theories, but when parents watch a doctor jab their child with a needle—and their child shows signs of autism within weeks or months—a "logical" connection is made.

All of these events, movements, stories, and beliefs work together to create a potent stew of belief, disbelief, and anxiety which needs an outlet. That the outlet has led to outbreaks of measles is not, perhaps, too hard to understand. The $64,000 question, however, is can the juggernaut be stopped?

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