The needle and the damage (not) done

The belief that vaccination causes autism is far more dangerous than any vaccine

The needle and the damage (not) done


In 1721, after New England Puritan preacher Cotton Mather had started an inoculation program—the ancestor of today’s disease-preventing vaccines—to combat a raging smallpox epidemic that eventually killed 800 Bostonians, someone firebombed his home. “Cotton Mather, you dog, dam [sic] you,” ran a note that accompanied the lit grenade tossed through his window, “I’l [sic] inoculate you with this, with a Pox to you.” There are two good reasons for Seth Mnookin to include the incident in The Panic Virus, his riveting account of the rise of the popular—but scientifically baseless—belief that vaccinations cause autism. Mather’s ordeal demonstrates both the surprisingly ancient pedigree of humanity’s best weapons against its worst enemies (smallpox regularly killed up to 400,000 Europeans a year in the 18th century), and that the counterintuitive idea of deliberately infecting ourselves—or worse, our infant children—with disease has always creeped us out.

That instinctive repulsion is one of the root factors in the long and bitter controversy over the causes of a neurological disorder, usually diagnosed in childhood, that can physically exhaust, financially drain and emotionally devastate families. It is now known that autism and the related conditions grouped together as autism spectrum disorder are physical disorders, meaning that the social impairment aspect—serious language difficulties, avoidance of eye contact and lack of interest in others—is no longer blamed, as it once was, on uncaring “refrigerator parents” who were reaping what they had sown. But what does cause ASD remains unknown, although a genetic “component” is clearly involved. Thus the feeling that ASD is a poisoned chalice parents have brought to their children—”What, after all,” remarks Mnookin in an interview, “is more you, than your genes?”—still provokes guilt, anger and a burning desire to find an outside agent.

No such agent could be more intuitively obvious than vaccines. Beyond their ancient emotional baggage, vaccinations are now given to very young children often within weeks—even days—of the ages at which many autistic kids first display symptoms. And from the1990s onward, both the number of vaccines administered and the incidence of ASD diagnoses have increased. Autism was once thought to affect four or five people in 10,000; today one in 280 girls and one in 70 boys is diagnosed with ASD, for an overall rate of one in 110 children. Intuition is further reinforced by the usual suspects Mnookin fingers: the Internet echo chamber that allows partisans to filter out contrary opinions, and the media’s casual standards of balance, easily satisfied with one source providing evidence-based (if uncertain) science and another offering passionate certainty and compelling stories.

All those factors mean that Andrew Wakefield was less a cause than a trigger in bringing the supposed vaccine-autism link to prominence, even if the British doctor’s 1998 paper in the prestigious medical journal Lancet—recently exposed as an exercise in not just shoddy science but flat-out fraud—gave the theory what scientific gloss it had. Which was never very much, even before Wakefield was exposed: study after study has failed to unearth any evidence for the link.

Yet vaccination rates have continued to drop and 200 California schools are now entering probable disease outbreak situations. One, Ocean Charter School in Del Ray, where half of all kindergartners since 2007 have not been vaccinated, is an epidemic waiting to happen. Ten children died of whooping cough in California last year, part of a state epidemic of 4,000 cases, a rate not seen since the vaccine was introduced in 1955.

The anti-vaccine activists are not likely to abandon the cause any time soon—many, in fact, see Wakefield as more persecuted than disgraced—at least not before there is progress in finding the real cause of ASD. And, more importantly, why its incidence is rising. Better diagnoses explain much of the increase, but not all. An unknown environmental factor is somehow involved in triggering the genetic component, as Mnookin readily admits. “It’s just that it’s not vaccines.”


The needle and the damage (not) done

  1. I live in California and had all my vaccinations as a kid back in the 1980's. They would not let you enter public school until you had these. I do not have kids, but if I ever do I will definitely make sure they are vaccinated because I think the risks of going without are far worse.

    • That's depressing. I've never had a flu shot in my life and I am perfectly healthy. You think it's okay to refuse a child to be educated because they don't get vaccinated? That's terrible. I hope you never do have kids.

      • With all due respect your evidence is anecdotal and the overwhelming evidence points clearly and unequivocally to the benefits and safety of the procedure. Study the science behind how the process works and you may revise your position.

      • It's not about flu shots, it's about shots for polio, measles and so on.

      • Wow, you are so rude! I do not have flu shots, but yes kids should have their vaccinations for other more contagious diseases. I see you are part of the crowd that loves to insult everyone, and if I do have kids I would be a great mother. Mine is one of the best, and I knew many kids that used to love her. She is the type of parent who puts her kids first. By the way if you do not vaccinate your kids, you are putting them at risk.

  2. Sad but true on any number of topics.

    "the Internet echo chamber that allows partisans to filter out contrary opinions, and the media's casual standards of balance, easily satisfied with one source providing evidence-based (if uncertain) science and another offering passionate certainty and compelling stories."

    A serious epidemic may be the only way this gets turned around – horrible thought. Main-stream media needs to keep this in the news.

    JMHO but the headline reference is a little off. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oAAOWLm1O-8&fe

    • I don't think we need to wait.
      Thanks to the selfish nature of the middle class (UK definition) mums in the UK measles is now back to being endemic there after nearly being wiped out completely. Huge studies in Scandinavia and Japan also show a correlation between ceasing a vaccination programme and the reemergence of disease.
      The influence of religion is not to be discounted either. In West Africa islam has caused folk to refuse to vaccinate their kids and diseases that were once under control are now rampant once more.
      Folk want a 100% guarantee that any treatment is effective and won't harm them. Unfortunately they fail to apply the same standards of risk to the other side of the equation, that of the chances of contracting the disease.

  3. Autism? I always thought the problem people had with vaccines is the use of mercury in Thimerosal, which I understand is used as a preservative and antiseptic element. And that there is actually something to be concerned about with the developing nerves and cumulative mercury that inhibits the growth of nerves for kids. Or something…

    I never heard of this link to autism before though.

    • Thimerosal – is a preservative. It is a type of mercury but not the same kind of mercury as what you are thinking about. It has been removed from most pediatric immunizations to allay people's fears. However, just so you know there is less Thimresol in a dose of vaccine than mercury in a can of tuna.

  4. Being a health care professional, I wonder where we have gone wrong with vaccine promotion. People believe physicians for the most part when they diagnose their illnesses and tell them the treatments they need. If a cardiac surgeon tells you that you need heart surgery you listen. Why then, when virtually every physician in the world say vaccination is the right thing to do for the prevention of diseases that have no cures and can kill infants, do people not listen?

    • As I wrote in a response above, perhaps it may be a reaction to Government pushing vaccinations for things seen as less serious. That coupled with a lack of perspective, given that people don't see the effects of it. Or the effects of not having it really, since vaccinations have been pretty effective for their generation.

    • I suggest it is the very success of the vaccines. Anybody seen a case of German measles? Why should I jab my kid to prevent something that won't happen anyways? Repeat over thousands of unprotected kids and — BOOM — the virus is back among us.

  5. Ah, I didn't know it had been phased out of pediatric shots, but I knew that there was alternatives now for thermosal. I don't particularly have any issue with vaccination given that its a pretty positive medicinal development. Were I to have kids I would certainly have them get their shots, the possible hosts of disease they are at risk for without seems a far greater danger to them then anything I've heard about from shots.

    Other then the mercury argument, which is as you demonstrated, moot (since it's possible to get vaccines without it), I don't understand current parents hostility to vaccinations to be honest. Especially given that most of their generation likely received them as kids themselves, I did…

    Perhaps it's merely a reaction to the constant pushing by Governments for seasonal flu shots which I don't see a need for (in terms of the amount they push it). Serious flus like H1N1 yes, but run of the mill no. It does seem a normal reaction I guess, that if they push it for un-serious illnesses, the serious ones seem less weighty.

    • The people they really encourage to get flu shots and pneumonia vaccines are the elderly as they are most likely to succumb to influenza. Also influenza can be dangerous for pregnant women due to difficulty breathing when the uterus is pushing up on the diaphragm. They also encourage anyone else who is in contact with people who have compromised immune systems (cancer patients) or hang out with the elderly and pregnant people. This year, they added the H1N1 antigen in the vaccination so they are recommending everyone get it.

  6. A sign of the times really.

    We increasingly live in a world where public opinion is shaped by celebrities.

    Apparently without the likes of Oprah, Bono, Travolta…and a host of other show business and musical brainiacs…to tell us "the truth"…we're utterly lost.

  7. I love how – even though there isn't a connection to autism and vaccines – parents would rather their child die from a curable illness than have a child with Autism. Even if the Autism risk WAS there, I would still get my children vaccinated because I want them to be alive.

    • Try living with a child who has autism. It opens up every other possibility of death….let alone diseases…even from a small accident in the swimming pool!

  8. Severe autism must suck, but I've seen kids who were apparently diagnosed with 'mild' autism – and I didn't think there was anything wrong with them at all, it looked like they were just doing their own thing.

  9. All those factors mean that Andrew Wakefield was less a cause than a trigger in bringing the supposed vaccine-autism link to prominence…

    Cause vs. trigger? Try CROOK.

  10. As some one who had H1N1, which was apparently a mild case, I wouldn't wish the consequences of the flu or fatigue that lingered for months after on anyone. I get the flu vaccine every year, even the year I got the H1N1, (which unfortunately was not available until after I'd been sick). My spouse has found that since we've been getting the flu vaccine, he no longer suffers pneumonia in the winter, which occurred every year until we started getting the flu vaccine. We also worry less about bringing the flu to the homes of our aging parents. If humankind has progressed so far as to figure out a way to prevent one from getting sick, you're a fool not to take it. Our grandparents would have jumped at the opportunity to be immunized against these diseases; the same diseases we now casually discount and ignore.

    I feel sorry for children whose parents are foolish enough to risk them contracting polio, measles and whooping cough and a litany of other preventable diseases, all of which are far more severe than possible consequences of the vaccines that prevent them. Life is not without risk. A child dying from a preventable disease is a terrible consequence for a parent to suffer, never mind that their child could infect another child too young to be immunized.

  11. I agree with Vatro. The government and the medical profession are responsible for damaging their own credibility on this one.

    First it was the flu shot. A scientific review of all the supposed evidence for flu-shot efficacy, which took into consideration population determinants of health, not only debunked the theory that flu shots are effective but found that elderly people who got flu shots were slightly more likely to die. (Of course, the fact that they don't work won't be news to anyone who's gotten the shot and then still manage to catch the flu…or to those who got even sicker than they'd ever felt without it)

    Next there was Guardasil, whose release was accompanied by a suspicious mad dash to get it into school systems and a disturbing amount of hype — considering the product hasn't been around long enough for anybody to be able to verify its long-term safety or possible health consequences.

    So if health officials want the public to take them seriously on the vaccine issue again, they're going to have to stop looking so much like they're in bed with drug companies.

  12. MTB – In Alberta where public health nurses, not family physicians do the vaccinating, it does not really wash that those who continue to promote flu vaccinations are "in bed" with the drug companies.
    You are correct. The CDC in the US did state flu shots are not really effective….for the reason that scientists have to "guess" which 3 to 5 influenzas will be prominant for the next flu season and make that vaccine with those viruses. They often guess wrong. So for the money invested in the vaccine, people still get sick and die. As for elderly people are who getting the vaccine being more likely to die…you have to look at their health. I would surmise that people with chronic respiratory illnesses are more likely to get the vaccine. If they get the flu due to bad predictions on the part of the scientists that year, they are more likely to die than someone without a chronic respiratory illness. If the scientists guess right, the people who get the vaccine don't get the flu. In Alberta, the govt. offers the vaccine for free. It is your choice to get it or not. The virus in the vaccine cannot make you sick because it is inactivated.

  13. Let's discuss Guardasil. In terms of safety, the components of this vaccine are exactly the same as every other vaccine – only the antigen is different. It was not hurried onto the market any more than any other new vaccine – ie: shingles vaccine. It has just gotten more media exposure, especially given the Catholic school boards reaction to it. HPV causes Cervical cancer, penile cancer, 1/3 of throat cancers and anal cancers. You have to look at the risks v. the benefits.

    • Healthcare Insider, first of all, how on earth does the fact that public health nurses administer the flu shot in any way diminish the suggestion that those who make the decisions about whether to buy it and promote it — government and medical higher-ups — are in bed with drug companies?

      Second of all, I'm not talking about research that shows that flu shots often fail to attack the right strains of flu. I'm talking about the research that debunked the so-called studies that said that elderly people who got flu shots lived, on average, longer than those who didn't. The scientist who reviewed those studies hypothesized that people who got flu shots might be healthier to begin with because they had the ways and means to get themselves to a clinic. When she reviewed the research, factoring in the baseline health of the flu shot groups and non flu shot groups, she found that the shot not only had no impact whatsoever on life expentency, but that the flu shot group mysteriously had slightly lower life-expectancy. …though nothing statistically significant.

    • Finally, with regards to Guardasil, I have a hard time buying that it's the same as other vaccinnes.

      First of all, if it was that simple, why did drug companies wait decades to profit from it? That's hard to believe in and of itself.

      But more specifically, the facts don't add up. Unlike measles, mumps, and other wildly seriously and contagious illnesses, HPV is a virus that lies dormant in most of our systems without causing any problems. If the body can create antibodies to the virus to fight it off, one must ask, why doesn't it do so naturally? It's not as if our bodies are too run down with symptoms to fight. Most of us don't know we're infected. So if our bodies don't create antibodies and kill the virus when the live virus is present, why would it create antibodies to kill the dead virus? Something's got to be different about this vaccinne.

      • MTB – I am sorry but when someone says that a group is "in bed with" the drug companies that usually means that they can expect some kind of kick back for selling their products. Public health nurses can't possibly get benefits. They don't go to any conferences in exotic locations; they are paid by the hour. Unless the govt is getting the kick back….
        As to the review you are discussing. It is obviously not the same Centres for Disease Control paper that received all of the media attention. At any rate, the scientist can hypothesize that the vaccinated group was in better health prior to the study because they got to the vaccination clinics however, given that in Alberta public health nurses travel to all of the nursing homes and dispense flu vaccinations, I am not sure how accurate her assumptions would be.
        With regard to the Guardasil vaccine and HPV. It has not been decades that HPV has been known to be a sexually transmitted disease that caused cervical cancer. It takes time to isolate viruses and develop vaccines – hence no vaccine for HIV/AIDS & some other viruses.

        • It would seem that there are different papilloma viruses. Some do not cause us problems, others cause cancer.
          Whether or not the viruses are similar enough to cause an adequate antibody response to one another, I have no idea. However, I do know that vaccines are not made from dead viruses but by from pieces of live viruses. Because the virus is not whole it is inactive or attenuated. The inactive virus has enough DNA to cause the body to develop antibodies but not to make a person sick. That is why is common for someone to get a low grade fever and feel achy after a vaccination. The body is doing its job. In the 1960's, we were given dead viruses so anyone who received an measles mumps rubella shot then likely needs a booster. The vaccines were not effective.

          • Sorry MTB – there are still some dead virus vaccines but they are rare; most are attenuated (whole virus-weakened) or inactive.

  14. To All:
    Why are we not privy to ALL the chemicals used in the manufacturing process of these vaccines? Why does the Canadian Gov't protect the proprietary concenrs of pharmacuticle companies rather than complete diclosure of the manufacturing process? Why don't we have easy access to information on adverse reactions to these vaccines as they do in the states? Has anyone crunched the numbers Macleans supports? Of the 4000 cases of reported, 0.0025% were fatal. Epidemic? Honestly, how manny of these cases had been previously inoculated. The best question…how many of these cases had access to proper healthcare? I mean this is the USA where Doctor's turn away patients without insurance.
    The bottom line is more needs to be done and I don't swallow every egg that comes into my basket…It may contain a retro virus afterall.

    • Go on to the site of the manufacturers of the vaccines and look at the vaccines, it tells you what is in the vaccines. As for the manufacturing process – are you concerned they are doing something unsafe while making the vaccine? Believe me, Health Canada has seen all their records and studies – that is how the vaccine got approved for use. As to adverse reactions – our numbers are going to be very similar to those in the US. I am sure if you contact Health Canada, the information is available.
      With regard to statement about access to healthcare. That question is irrelevant. The reason being that these diseases that we are talking about have NO treatment or cure. That is why we vaccinate for them. There is no treatment for tetanus, diptheria, whooping cough, measles, mumpes, rubella or influenza. If you get it, you tough it out and hope you survive. 6 out of 10 people who get diptheria do not.

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