Almost nobody remembers life before vaccinations. And that’s the problem.
Nobody remembers the days when polio was a virtual death sentence, or when mumps regularly decimated kindergarten classes. Measles, meningitis, rubella, and pertussis used to strike fear in many a parent’s heart, because many kids died from them in the days before vaccines.
Thanks to vaccines, these illnesses are rare today. So why are a few well-meaning parents trying to bring back those bad old days?
I heard the strangest thing one time, after I’d told a group of friends that my wife and I were expecting a baby. An acquaintance pulled me aside and told me, in no uncertain terms, to avoid giving our baby her shots. “Better if you don’t,” she told me. “Vaccines can cause autism.”
Autism! If I knew for sure that I was giving my happy, healthy daughter a lifetime of autism with her shots, I’d hold off the vaccinations, too. And it seems I’m not the only person who’s been pulled into the whisper campaign: More parents are fearfully avoiding vaccinations, having been told by friends that the “mercury content” in shots triggers autism in previously healthy kids.
But here’s the thing: It’s wrong. The evidence doesn’t support it. And if enough parents decide — on the basis of misinformation — to avoid vaccinations for their kids, it won’t be long before we see the body count rise again.
Mercury misinformation The rumored link between mercury and autism originated from Robert Kennedy’s 2005 essay Deadly Immunity that linked the vaccine preservative thimerosal (which contains mercury) to increasing rates of autism in kids. “[Scientists’] failure to come clean on thimerosal will come back horribly to haunt our country and the world’s poorest populations,” he warned.
A lot believed him — after all, he had his Kennedy lineage and his long history of highlighting environmental issues behind him. And yet the site that published the article later had to publish five paragraphs of corrections, eventually pulling the essay from their site altogether when its plain wrongness could not be ignored.
First, autism and mercury poisoning are two totally different things. Patricia Rodier, M.D., an autism researcher who studied both mercury toxicity and autism, has concluded that the two have no relationship at all. “The similarities claimed are not convincing, and the symptoms of [mercury] poisoning are totally unlike those of autism,” she writes.
Second, multiple studies conducted on large populations of children have found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. In areas where thimerosal was removed from vaccines, the rates of new autism diagnoses didn’t change.
The facts haven’t stopped the rumor mill, though: anti-vaccination activists have kept reassigning blame. After thimerosal was debunked, they then blamed it on the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. As more evidence piled up against these hypotheses, now they’re saying it has something to do with mitochondrial disease. It’s like a murder trial where the prosecution keeps changing the murder weapon and the scene of the crime!
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Childhood disease makes a comeback Can parents afford to be wrong about vaccinations? Beyond a certain point, no. If enough parents believe the wrong facts about vaccinations, there will be deadly consequences.
You only have to look at Great Britain, where a measles vaccine scare has lowered the number of measles vaccination rates, resulting in the first measles death in 14 years. In Australia and the U.S., deaths caused by whooping coughs are up precisely because a growing number of parents have believed the vaccines-autism link.
Whooping cough diagnoses used to be almost nonexistent because kids were being vaccinated against it. Thanks to misinformation and myth, these first-world countries are sliding back into the dark ages.
On a more personal level, I care about this because my daughter’s shots can only do so much to protect her. Her health relies largely on other kids being immune against diseases, too —what doctors call “herd immunity.” If we let herd immunity in our communities drop, the resulting epidemic can make the situation in Australia and the U.S. look like a picnic.
Finding something to blame I have friends who are parents of children with autism. Some of them strongly believe that vaccinations made their kids that way. Given the diffuse, hard-to-pin-down cause of autism, it’s easy to understand why.
Science has become so effective at solving many of the mysteries behind diseases that it’s hard to believe some illnesses are still years away from a cure. Cancer is one of these diseases. Autism is another, with a number of different factors that are hard to control (environment, genetics, responses to stimuli). Although “there is no definitive scientific answer to what causes autism,” it is easier for some parents of kids with autism to believe that vaccines caused their children’s condition. It tells them that there is a definite cause for kids’ autism, and it gives them a definite target for blame.
And vaccines are an obvious target; they’re usually administered at about the same time autism is diagnosed in kids, so it’s easy to make a mistaken connection between the timing of the vaccination and the onset of symptoms. Plus with the advent of the Internet, this kind of misinformation spreads quickly through online support groups.
Years of tests of vaccinated children show that vaccines are not harmful for the vast majority of children who have them. Spreading the myth that vaccinations are harmful is not only wrong, it is also dangerous when it scares enough parents away from vaccinating their kids.
Take note: I’m not saying this out of spite or anger. When my friends say with confidence that “vaccinations caused our child’s autism,” it seems callous, even cruel to contradict their beliefs, given all that they’ve done for their kids.
But I believe that it is possible to be both respectful of parents of kids with autism and speak the truth about vaccines. Vaccines have removed much of the fear that accompanied parenthood in the past. We who live in luckier times should do everything in our power to keep the reason for that fear from coming back to haunt us.