Healthy Living: A Shot or Not
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Developed nations are not immune to such scares or their consequences: Witness the much publicized follies of British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, he and several colleagues published a paper in the medical journal The Lancet suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine, inflammatory bowel disease and autism. Though none of this was proven, in a press conference Wakefield recklessly asserted that MMR vaccinations should be stopped until more research could be done, adding that it was a “moral issue.” As a result, MMR vaccination rates plummeted from over 90 percent to under 70 percent in certain parts of Great Britain, and reported measles cases rose from 56 in England and Wales in 1998 to 1,370 in 2008.
Causal connections to autism have also been claimed for the preservative thimerosal, an organomercury compound used to prevent contamination in certain vaccines since the 1930s. Fueled by concerns over potential (though not established) toxicity, in 1999 the federal government began a precautionary campaign to phase out its use (it’s still found in the influenza vaccine, although children age 3 and under are given a thimerosal-free equivalent). However, in 2003, respected environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy opened a new Pandora’s box with his article, “Deadly Immunity,” published both in Rolling Stone and on Salon.com, which charged that the CDC had conspired to cover up the dangers of thimerosal to protect the pharmaceutical industry.
By 2011, both Wakefield’s and Kennedy’s theses had been roundly discredited, largely because innumerable scientific research studies found no proof that either thimerosal or the MMR contribute to the development of autism. Significant misinformation and misrepresentation in Kennedy’s piece (examined most recently in Seth Mnookin’s social history The Panic Virus) led to its removal from both Rolling Stone’s and Salon’s websites.
As for Wakefield, a series of investigative articles in the Sunday Times of London charged that the doctor was guilty of fraudulent data manipulation, financial conflict of interest and mistreatment of his research subjects. Struck off the medical register in Great Britain, his paper retracted by The Lancet, in January of this year he could be seen trying to defend his honor in uncomfortable showdowns on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°” and ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Still, disreputable as they are, these particular vaccine controversies have sparked a panic that’s proven hard to stamp out. Vaccine paranoia has been with us ever since Edward Jenner, the 18th-century “father of immunology,” stuck cowpox pus in milkmaids’ arms to defeat smallpox and was caricatured as the guy who would turn all his patients into barnyard animals as a result. But at least Jenner didn’t have to contend with the Internet and television.
Thanks to websites like Age of Autism and Generation Rescue—a key platform for autism activist Jenny McCarthy—not to mention ongoing opportunities in recent years for Wakefield, McCarthy and their sympathetic peers to appear on talk shows such as “Oprah” and “Larry King Live,” the notion that vaccines must be to blame for autism has been able to gather considerable momentum before science has had the chance to fully explore other hypotheses.The fact that autism is considered epidemic by many—boasting a current prevalence of one in 110 children—has only fed the anxiety.
In a 2010 University of Michigan study surveying 1,550 respondents, researchers found that although 90 percent of parents believed vaccines were a good way to protect their children from disease, one in five were still concerned that the autism link might be real, leading study director Gary L. Freed to note, “It appears current public-health education efforts on this issue have not yet satisfied many parents’ concerns.” Meanwhile, a number of parents have reported seeing vaccine-related autism develop in their own children—one being Trumbull’s Kim Stagliano, managing editor of the blog Age of Autism.
Stagliano has three daughters on the autism spectrum: Mia, 16, Gianna, 14 and Bella, 10. Her two older daughters received their childhood vaccines on schedule, then at a later date, she says, began to show the classic problems of language and social development associated with autism. They were both diagnosed at the end of 1999. While pregnant with Bella, she read a magazine article about mercury in vaccines. “Before that, it didn’t even occur to me that I should question,” she says. “Vaccinating my daughters was like breathing. The article just sounded wrong. Who puts mercury in a baby? I wouldn’t—and yet I had.” (Bella remains unvaccinated; Stagliano attributes her diagnosis to a mishandled breach birth.)
Novella points out that parents of children with autism will often “recall” that the child’s problems started right after a particular vaccine or series of them, when in fact the records—if they’re available—show that the appearance of the autism symptoms did not coincide with the vaccine schedule. (For example, while the MMR is administered at 12 months, signs of autism often show up as much as six months earlier.) “It’s not that the parent is lying; it’s just that that’s how human memory works,” he says. He understands why parents would latch onto this explanation. “Science has identified quite a number of genes that contribute to autism, and we’re starting to unravel what’s going on in the brain. But there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and parents are desperate.”