The vaccine-autism hoax -

The vaccine-autism hoax

The Lancet retracts its study linking the two, but the damage may already be done


Twelve years after it was published, the Lancet has finally retracted Andrew Wakefield’s study linking the MMR vaccine with autism. Not soon enough; certainly not before tremendous damage was done to public health. Following the study’s publication, vaccination rates in Britain plummeted – no small thanks to Tony Blair, who refused to say whether he’d had his own child vaccinated. Meanwhile, measles cases continue to explode, and the WHO  – which was on track to eradicate the disease in Europe this year – has conceded that it isn’t going to happen, because vaccination rates are just too low.

Will the study’s retraction change that? Not a chance. Partly because the autism industry has too much invested in the vaccine linkage, not to mention idiot celebrity supporters like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.

But the bigger problem is that Europe and North America are becoming increasingly enamoured of all sorts of magical thinking. It isn’t just the hysteria over vaccines, there’s also the inane fetish for all things “organic,” and the growing market for homeopathic remedies and other “alternative” medicines.

I explore the moral and political forces that are driving this rejection of science and the return to pre-modern worldviews in The Authenticity Hoax, out in a couple of months (yoiks!). But an excellent new book cataloguing this mentality in all its sordidness is Denialism, by NYT writer Michael Specter. The chapter on vaccines is very good, as is the one on racial profiling in medicine.


The vaccine-autism hoax

  1. It's true, many of my friends refused to get flu shots because they didn't want to be injected with "that s***". I also have friends who don't want their children to receiving immunizations for childhood diseases. Denialism indeed.

    • I never hesitated in vaccinating my kids, but I'd cut some slack to parents – like many urban myths there was a grain of truth at the core of fears: the notion that medical science and pharmaceutical corporations can sometimes screw us over.

      • Pray tell, in what magical world will one find the grain of truth between MMR and autism?

        • The grain of truth is only in the sense that sometimes large organizations (governments, corporations, research bodies) can treat the population like guinea pigs, be slow to acknowledge potential risks, and lead us down bad paths. Ontario, for example, is one of the few jurisdictions to advocate flu vaccinations for the entire population – it's tough to say if there's not a wee bit of political or emotional input into that decision. Or, consider the HPV vaccination – I'm not fully convinced that the science merits its use (in a risk-to-benefit sense). In both of these cases, we don't yet know the long term ramifications of routine, broad-based vaccination.

          I'm not saying latching on to the autism BS was an appropriate response to concerns about having our kids used as scientific guinea pigs, just that it's fair to acknowledge there's a lot of money, and a lot of politics involved in the vaccination industry. In a society where there's a pill and a vaccination for many non-problems, and a shortage of credible guidance from 'above', it's not completely insane to be suspicious.

  2. Andrew, I'm really looking forward to your forthcoming book – sounds like it will be great case of philosohpy meets anthropology meets social criticism.

    You wrote: "But the bigger problem is that Europe and North America are becoming increasingly enamoured of all sorts of magical thinking."

    Never more true than in the case of parenting, as the whole vaccine debacle shows. As a parent of three young kids, it's been a fascinating and maddening era to live in. The sheer volume of fear and information parents must cope with is unbelievable (from pre-conception on). If you're not careful as a parent, you can find yourself trying to mitigate every possible harm suggested by unending "studies" and Oprah tidbits of caution.

  3. "Not soon enough; certainly not before tremendous damage was done to public health …… But the bigger problem is that Europe and North America are becoming increasingly enamoured of all sorts of magical thinking."

    It is insidious because it also affects the non-magical thinking as well. An acquaintance of ours has young daughter who is due for her shots soon. Mother is freaking out – 99.9% believes that there is no link but in back of her brain she is thinking 'what if there is a connection' and is making herself a bit crazy with worry and indecision.

    One part of the problem is that doctors, and other experts, make some elaborate claims when they really shouldn't. Experts need to show more restraint because they are only hurting themselves when they make wild accusations.

    Considerate of you to leave global warming out of your list of magical thinking. I think a book will be written about the magical thinking of North American msm and fellow travelers who are still pushing global warming as something that is occurring and people can fix it if we just pay more taxes.

    • Whereas the 'deniers' are purely objective and science-based?

      • yes. It is up to believers to prove it is happening, not for others to prove it is not.

        Anyways, I was thinking of specifically North Americans. UK newspapers have published some interesting articles the past couple of weeks but it's not being covered here by msm and so majority of people are not learning about the dodgy scientists and what they were willing to do to impose their agenda. I honestly believe the global warming hype has hurt science/scientists a lot because they have set aside ethics and good practices.

        As I was writing this I came across David Warren's article from today and he writes much better than I:

        "I have argued previously for chastity: not limited to the sexual sense, of keeping one's pants on. The virtue of chastity requires us to look at the world without immediately engaging our desires. Those desires are often not sexual at all; some of the most powerful involve justifying one's livelihood. A scientist with an interest in getting a result is under huge temptation, compounded by the huge public funding on which his research depends."

        • "yes. It is up to believers to prove it is happening"

          First off, it's a case of acceptance or rejection – not belief.

          Secondly, I agree that hyperbole is not helpful – but there's been years of credible science on which to judge the claims of global warming. What I'm suggesting is that you're dismissing all that science for the same magical/emotional reasons you decry.

          It's a fairly easy position to demand absolute proof, since the entire science has a predictive component to it. It's all about anticipation and judgment of potential risks. That's not to say there's not ample room for debate, but we should be cautious of black-and-white assessments.

          • I was wondering when this would morph to climate change/nochange. However, I am a little shocked that joly would not recognize that IF he is correct and "climate change" is bogus then it is not another example but rather a counter example of this phenomena in which amateurs armed with wikis and almanacs inspired by marginally stable columnists proved to be correct while the established research community was wrong.

          • Actually it's not a counter-example at all, it is EXACTLY the same.

            1. public wants to believe something
            2. scientist with strong credentials obliges public by producing "scientific" study confirming the desired result
            3. all the other more credible science is ignored and hidden from public view, both by the media and by allies and associates of the scientist with the "famous" studies
            4. fraud becomes publicly accepted wisdom, for as long as 12 years in the autism case.

            There is absolutely no difference with the AGW case, except the scale.

          • The ordering of your points shows bias. Someone who has become convinced that AGW exists and is significantly mankind-caused, might list those 2, 1, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 2, 3, 4 (the IPCC errors), 2, 2, 2, 2.

          • You can rearrange 1, 2 and 3 any way you like.

            Also, everybody is biased, that's why it's a bad thing to manipulate peer review and shut out dissenting voices.

          • The years of credible science were performed by a small number of individuals, most of whom have since been shown to have produced fraudulent results on numerous occasions, results that are no more valid than this autism study. In fact large portions of IPCC 2007 report has recently been shown to be based on activism on not science, contrary to the mandate of the IPCC.

            But, as jolyon indicates, the media here don't with to report those stories.

          • I've seen his comments before, which occurred two months ago, before any of the more recent revelations, which he is likely unaware of.

            Of course there continue to be people claiming it's true. It takes a long time to debunk this scale of massive propaganda.

          • Well fortunately we have a bevy of fringe right wingers with questionable sources to keep on top of all the scientific types doing actual research!

          • Just for the record, when you type the word scientific as "scientific", that's not actually enough to disprove years of credible research. Nor are catty emails taken out of context enough to discredit the theory.

            But keep trying.

  4. That was my initial point – it's a bit rich to claim there's no emotion and irrationality present in the denier camp (which isn't to dismiss that side, just to call BS on claims of pure objectivity).

  5. Maybe if the health 'officials' change the rules so children don't 'need' to be vaccinated at 2, 4, 6 and 12 months old, they would find parents would be less stressed out about the whole idea. We (as parents in general) understand the importance of vaccinations to the greater public health, but why do they insist on starting so young? Is there truly a risk to waiting until they are 2 years or older? Really, how much contact with the diseases do they have? And if they are entering childcare, the parents can follow a vaccination time-table that fits their need. Seems like the health officials have taken advantage of the 1-year maternity leave to make sure the parents can get to the doctors for all the shots – what other basis do they have to push such an aggressive (IMO) schedule?

    As for the possible autism link – it certainly concerned me. Since we are currently waiting to have our oldest assessed for what we suspect is high-functioning Autism, we wonder whether any environment factors could have contributed to his risk. We modified both our children's vaccination schedules to wait until they were slightly older – without the full approval of our family doctor. In the long run, they're still vaccinated like their peers, and who knows, perhaps have even stronger immunities as a result.

    • Ms. Nova Scotian Mom,

      From the Wired magazine article:

      " In certain parts of the US, vaccination rates have dropped so low that occurrences of some children's diseases are approaching pre-vaccine levels for the first time ever."

      "The Times found that even though only about 2 percent of California's kindergartners are unvaccinated (10,000 kids, or about twice the number as in 1997), they tend to be clustered, disproportionately increasing the risk of an outbreak of such largely eradicated diseases as measles, mumps, and pertussis (whooping cough). The clustering means almost 10 percent of elementary schools statewide may already be at risk."

      Read the article I posted above, but here's the gist – by not vaccinating your children, you're putting other children at risk. The key is "herd immunity" – once a certain high percentage of children is vaccinated, outbreaks no longer take place. But (and here's the key), ALL children need to be vaccinated because the vaccination DOESN'T ALWAYS TAKE.

    • "we wonder whether any environment factors could have contributed to his risk"

      But that's the whole point – there's simply no science to back that concern up, and as such it's an emotional-visceral response. (My own son has Asperger's Syndrome, and I'm certainly not downplaying the challenges, fears and heartbreak that comes with that).

      If everyone delayed vaccinations as you have, then the risks would be very real for exposure to some of the horrific diseases they protect against. Those who don't get their kids vaccinated, or delay it, are benefitting from the actions of others (what sociologists call 'free riders').

      "and who knows, perhaps have even stronger immunities as a result."

      Indeed, who knows? That's an ethereal rationalization of your decision, not an evidence-based assessment of it.

    • Babies are much, much more likely to die or be permanently disabled from whooping cough, measles, polio etc. than an older child. That's why they start them so young, plain and simple. It's not rocket-science: it's mortality risk.

      We parents need to let go of the emotional reactions and use our brains.

    • Whooping cough kills babies. That vaccine is not 100% effective (combined with the poor uptake going on), so the bug is still out there.

      Tetanus kills babies. You don't catch tetanus from other people. You catch it from bacteria that are everywhere already (this is the "rusty nail" disease).

      Polio kills babies. As far as I know, there's so little polio around right now, that Canada now uses the somewhat less effective (but safer) injected killed-virus vaccine rather than the far more effective (but slightly riskier) oral live-virus vaccine. But polio is still out there in the world and Canada has international airports.

      That's why we vaccinate our babies. Concerned mom, please vaccinate your babies.

    • I agree with you 100%! My 3 are now 7, 9 and 11, and over their relatively short lives they have been offerred so many vaccines. When you go to the health clinic, there are always "NEW" vaccines that the nurses are pressuring you to give to your kids. When my oldest two were babies, the push was on to vaccinate against the pneumococcal and the meningococcal strains, however at that time there was an outbreak in Edmonton of a meningitis strain that was outside the realm of the vacine – so vaccinated persons were not immune. Shortly after that, the chicken pox vaccine came out. At this point, I just did not feel right allowing my 12 month old to have 4 separate vaccinations covering 11 possible diseases all on the same day. Now that the kids are in school, they are funnelled into a system where vaccinations are built into the schedule. So we have now added Heb B, and for my daughter next year we need to decide on HPV. (But since we are going with the herd mentality here, my sons will not be offerred HPV) Add to this a possibility of a yearly flu vaccine and the recent swine flu, and any tropical vacation shots you may feel you need…….and yeah – at what point do we talk about too much of a good thing?

  6. Which isn't to say that because McDonald says so, it's true. Just that he's put the case forward better than I could.

    • You know what? The fact that he starts it with "Conspiracy theorists and climate change deniers" tells you all you need to know.

      • scf, just above: "years of credible science casting doubt on AGW was deliberately hidden from public view by the same scientists, by politicians, by the IPCC, and by legions of environmental activists. "

        Dude, that's a conspiracy theory. Pushing a conspiracy theory makes you, by definition, a conspiracy theorist. What exactly are you complaining about?

        • And yet, in this instance, the East Anglia email treasure chest is providing some objective evidence in support of the theory.

    • I didn't know Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen are "deniers and conspiracy theorists". I thought they were some of the most successful scientists around. Glad that Bob could clear that up.

      • It's possible to be successful and accurate in one field, and confused or misguided in another. That's why we have brain surgeons and car mechanics, rather than just one of them.

        • All those people on the list are in the field.

          • I would suggest "science" is a category, not a field. I would suggest they share many scientific pursuits, but they do not all share "the field" (of climatology, I'm guessing). Only 17 have the word "climatology" in any form in their title, teaching area, area of study, or educational background, for example.

            I don't dispute they have important opinions, great knowledge in their areas, and are worth listening to. But just like brain surgeons and car mechanics are skilled in specific areas, geologists and climatologists and archaeologists and biologists are also skilled in specific areas, and may not necessarily share all the knowledge required to figure something out.

            The longest list doesn't win the argument. The scientific, reproducible, empirical evidence does. And there's an awful lot of that on one side, and considerably less on the other. Which says something.

  7. I had my oldest vaccinated at two months, and again at four including the whooping cough vaccines. She was given the first booster for the whooping cough at about 7 months. She ended up with WHOOPING cough and had to be hospitalized. Anyone watching their baby turn blue when coughing would understand my feelings. According to the doctors at the hospital about 1 in 100,000 children actually catch the whooping cough from the vaccine. I believe at that time they used live viruses.
    I still vaccinated the rest of my children born after but I refused the whooping cough vaccine. My youngest who is now 26 started his vaccine at a later age not as an infant. He is rarely if ever sick with more than the occassional cold or stomach flu, and probably has a stronger immune system.
    I don't advocate not vaccinating children , but I do agree it should be done at a later age as the babies are stil developing, perhaps after the first year or two.

    • There's no science whatsoever to suggest delaying vaccinations. While the babies develop is exactly when you want to introduce the vaccines, thus he suggested ages for vaccination. They're based on decades of public health research, and results.

      Perhaps that's the problem. Most people under 50 have never seen a case of mumps, rubella or measles, and polio is just a distant memory. There's no perceived risk, so folk wisdom takes the place of research.

    • It's tragic that you experienced one of the rare side effects, but I don't agree that it justifies changing vaccination schedules. Those schedules are science-based, and the statistics tell the story of the safety of the current procedure. You've got better odds of getting hit by a car than catching whooping cough from the vaccine. The other problem I have with refusing vaccines is that it puts other kids at risk. Vaccines aren't 100% effective, so we tend to rely on herd immunity to quench the spread of diseases and make up the difference. The problem is that if a kid isn't vaccinated and catches a disease, they can then spread the disease to a kid who WAS vaccinated, but for whom the vaccine was ineffective.

  8. "but I do agree it should be done at a later age as the babies are stil developing, perhaps after the first year or two."

    On what do you base this?

  9. Yeah, the autism-vaccine conspiracy myth is an interesting phenomenon, as unlike many anti-science "beliefs", it was driven from the left and not the right.

    Wired magazine had an interesting article on the subject a couple of months back. It also talks about the autism "conferences" where McCarthy is the keynote speaker and "cures" are hawked on gullible parents.

    Tellingly, a raging debate of 664 multi-paragraph comments ensued, with the parents of autistic children going on long rants denouncing the vaccination experts, the Wired writers, and everyone opposing their view as being part of a giant conspiracy.

  10. I think the worst part is debating ordinary people on the subject. When you tell them there have been 12 epidemiological studies done, tracking the millions who have received MMR, which prove beyond any reasonable doubt that MMR doesn't cause autism, they balk and say there's room for doubt and skepticism.

    When you tell them that the age autism symptoms are first observed and diagnosed is the same age as the age of vaccination, and that what ordinary people are observing is really just a tragic coincidence, they balk and say "Well, how do you tell that to a mother whose son just became autistic after a vaccine injection that she is wrong." Well, I don't care how, but you damn well DO tell her, and everyone else, so you don't start getting measles outbreaks when dumbasses start opting out on vaccinations. Which is what is happening now.

  11. Am I wrong or are alternative medicine practitioners covered under provincial health care in BC? and isn't Ontario debating whether to do the same? US Senators John Kerry and Tom Harkin have tried to add faith healing coverage in their health care bills. Why can't our politicians defend science based medicine?

    The public is sadly rejecting science and while there are scientists fighting back, there is little done by government to defend science.

    • You're implying that all alternative medicine is NOT science based? Naturopathic Doctors, for example, go through the same pre-med schooling as Medical Doctors, plus 4 more years.

      Quoted from the CAND website:
      "Like a conventional doctor, dentist, or chiropractor, the naturopathic doctor first completes pre-medical studies at university. The naturopathic student then enters into a four-year, full-time medical program at an accredited school of naturopathic medicine. Training includes basic, medical, and clinical science; diagnostics; naturopathic principles and therapeutics; and extensive clinical experience under the supervision of licensed naturopathic doctors. Graduates receive the title "N.D." or Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. "

      • Since most medical schools in Canada only require that you have a few science courses in your undergraduate degree, "Pre-med" means very little. A person could have majored in English and get into medical school.

      • Alternative medicine IS NOT science based. Anyone who argues otherwise is attempting to redefine the scientific method.

  12. A few people have said that skipping vaccines can build "stronger immunities". This is a complete misunderstanding of how vaccines work. If you grew up in a completely sanitary environment and then were exposed to a disease, your immune system would be weaker (less able to detect the disease and with less defenses already in place). Vaccines have the exact opposite effect. They expose your immune system to an artificial, weakened form of the pathogen so that your body can adapt to it.
    In other words, vaccines can only strengthen the immune system.

    • I'm thrilled at least some people still have an understanding of how vaccines work.

  13. The saddest result of 12 years of having people believe that the MMR vaccination was a cause is that Autism and what causes it have been overlooked. Autism is on the rise yet are scientists any closer to finding out why.

    Junk/bad science makes so much noise that the good/real science get lost in the noise.

  14. Some of them were on the IPCC. They are all qualified in the field of climate science. There is a separate list for those who are not. Why you are so daft as to deny this is beyond me. Go ahead and shoot the messenger.

    • I did not state "there are no qualified skeptics". I misunderstood the list you linked to, but I was trying to point out that a popular way of debating AGW is to make a list of hundreds of names of people who have concerns, but not actually expertise, in the field.

      My apologies, I posted too late and misunderstood the point entirely. I'll just go back to my original point, which was meant to be about Freeman Dyson. Dyson is not a climatologist, period. He is quite gifted in some areas, but I believe many of his climate-related pronouncements to be misguided.

      The rest I completely retract, as I was not thinking straight when I wrote it.

      • You are correct about Dyson. I mention him because he is considered one of the greatest scientests of our time, and therefore he would have a general idea of whether a theory has been proven or not. There are few scientists in the world as successful as him. Also, he is not as far from climate science as you think, which is in reality a branch of physics, in which Dyson excelled. And he is a skeptic of AGW.

        So, I mentioned two individuals, one of the most successful scientists, and one of the most successful scientists in the field of climate science.

        The fact is, science is not a popularity contest anyway.

  15. Millions of children have survived childhood illness and disease because they had their immunizations.There is one, and only one industry that benefits from parents refusing to get their children immunized……..the funeral industry.

  16. Check this out, there is some very compelling data:

    I haven't had a vaccine of any kind since Grade 1 (I'm 34). I do not believe they work, partially because I trust the CDC and FDA about as much as I trust the IPCC. The FDA, at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry that directly pays the salaries of about half of its work force, would have us believe that vaccines and drugs are a substitute for a healthy lifestyle. They are not.

    • A healthy lifestyle is not a defense against aggressive viruses and bacteria.

      Because of "individualistic" decision makers such as yourself, we have resurgent TB, pertussis, measles and smallpox outbreaks in our country.

      Thanks so much.

      • Are you really saying that the only way to prevent diseases is to get a vaccination against them. And that following a healthy lifestyle such as eating right, taking vitamins and just generally being healthy is not a contributing factor?????
        I would have to ask you, what rock have you been living under and where does this information that vaccines are so good and natural living is sooo wrong???? Why are there new vaccines every year? Why are they still pushing everyone to get a SWINE FLU vaccine now? in April when ful season is over? Do you really believe that you can trust everything science has done?? Really……..
        Your welcome for thinking for myself and believe there is a better way

        Take a long hard look at what the sciences have really done…………wouldnt we be totally rid of all the "badness"out there???? if they were indeed as wonderful and good as we are made to believe????? I dont think so.

        I will continue to think for myself and I will pray that nothng happens to your or your children….and that your trust in the safety of the scientific pharmaceutical industry comes through for you!

    • PS: You might also consider that a "healthy immune system" can also be a source of severe reaction to some diseases. Retroviruses and others often use the body's immune system against the body … which is why some of the most severe infections seem to kill, um, healthy 34 year olds.

  17. Nice to see the "usual suspects" spewing drivel yet again. First, to Andrew Potter. Who do you think the Autism Speaks people are? Are they parents of Autistic children? Do you think that parents dealing with the agony of a disabled child might, just maybe, have invested a little more effort in arriving at their conclusions than say, you?

    As to the GMC kangaroo court that Wakefield went through…utterly corrupt (google Martin Walker). Lancet couldn't possibly be subject to pressure from the drug companies it relies on advertising could it?

    As to the whole vaccination paradigm vs the wellness paradigm some of you bozos would do well to acquaint yourselves with the Pasteur/ Beauchamp dichotomy. If that's too much work for you, go back to knee jerk reactions based on deeply held beliefs you have no idea of the origins of…

    As to conspiracy theories being "magical thinking", ah no. Suggested reading: Church Committee report, 911 Commision counsel Lee Hamilton's dissenting book, on Wall St. and "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man" should keep you busy for a while.

  18. My daughter (now 28) missed the first opportunity for the measles vaccine because she had a cold, and as she was still being breastfed, I believed her immunity would be high. She was therefore 16 months when, two days before she was to be vaccinated, she contracted measles from an unimmunised 3 year old. She was extremely ill and lost all her speech for several months; it didn't return to the same level till she was over two. I'm glad to say that there were no long term effects after that, but I'd still like to remind people that even breastfed do not have perfect immunity – and that not immunising your own child can put younger children at risk as well. Wendy (Australia)