By: Kiel Watson
During the summer I took a class on Anthropology in Education. The course covered various topics ranging from differences in child rearing practices around the world to the inadequacies of American public education. Frequent group discussions were a large part of the course, and during one of the discussions a fellow student brought up a complaint about our public education system I did not expect; that she had trouble finding a school for her children because they were unvaccinated. Her problem, however, was a symptom of a much larger one facing our country. A slew of fake news articles linking vaccinations to autism, backed by celebrities,amplified by online filter bubbles and echo chambers has caused a generation of parents to resist vaccinating their children,
The negative view of vaccines began after a 1998 press conference by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. The press conference was held to announce the conclusion he had drawn regarding 12 children he observed, that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) was linked to autism. The theory behind the supposed link to autism was that when all three vaccines were administered at the same time they caused an alteration in the immune system that allowed the measles virus in the vaccine to enter the intestines (his specialty,) and from there travel to the brain and damage neurons resulting in autism.
When Wakefield released his paper and held a press conference he admitted that it was a theory and not proven, but in a world of helicopter parenting the the idea spread like a California wildfire. In the U.K. the General Medical Council investigated Wakefield and his license to practice medicine in that country was revoked after numerous ethical violations were discovered, such as Wakefield receiving funding from lawyers preparing lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. The journal which originally published his paper retracted it, and the found falsified information in Wakefield’s findings. Despite all of this and the fact that numerous scientific studies have proven any link between vaccines and autism to be false, the damage had been done.
One of the arguments presented as proof of the link between vaccines and autism is the rate at which autism occured before standard immunizations and after. In the 70’s and 80’s autism rates were estimated at 1 in 2000 children. Today the Center for Disease Control estimates the disease affects 1 in 150. At a glance this information appears to indicate a large rise over the years in cases of autism, but when one looks at other factors that argument collapses.
Were you aware that before 1943 there were no recorded cases of autism in the United States? The reason there were no recorded cases before then is because the condition had not been defined. In the past those with mental impairments were lumped in with mental patients, criminals and the homeless in asylums. One such institution in Wayne county was Eloise Hospital. Eloise was in operation from 1839 until 1982 that at its peak in the 1920’s had 10,000 residents. A cemetary with over 5,000 unmarked graves from this era still lies hidden behind a fence off Henry Ruff at Michigan Avenue.
As the years went by the definitions for autism changed. Signs of the disorder began to be detected earlier and more often, and other conditions were added to the DSM definition of the disorder. All of these factors and others contributed to the rapid rise in reported cases of autism.
While many states allow an exemption to vaccination for children to attend school based on religious or personal reasons, many of the opponents to mandatory vaccination do so on the grounds that not having a choice in the matter is a violation of their freedoms. What many overlook in that argument is that the issue isn’t about them; its about their children. The laws requiring vaccination are similar to the ones that require car seats, and restrict smoking in vehicles with minors. These laws exist for the safety and protection of children, regardless of the beliefs of parents. When parents choose not to vaccinate their children the results can be devastating for entire communities.
In 1991 two church-run private schools in Philadelphia whose population of 350 unvaccinated students was the center of an outbreak of measles. Nine children died and over 1,500 were infected before the spread of the virus was halted. While that outbreak may have been nearly thirty years ago, the potential for a future epidemic is very real. Currently the nationwide vaccination rate for measles is around 93%. A study from Stanford University estimates that if the level drops 5% we will see the rate of infection triple.
The reason for such a dramatic rise in infections from a small dip in vaccination is this; currently unvaccinated children are protected by the ones that are. The odds of a child getting measles is low, but once it is contracted by a child in a group any other unvaccinated children can contract it very easily. The more children that are unprotected, the greater the chance the entire group will become infected.
Aside from the link some believe exists between the MMR vaccine and autism, there are also those that believe there is a link between thimerosal, a mercury based preservative used in vaccine solutions in the past, and autism. Similarly, these theories have been debunked by medical professionals and the CDC. Physician Mark Geier and his son David Geier (who holds no medical degree) were major proponents of this theory. The initial studies they held forth as evidence, much like Wakefield’s, were rife with problems. Also like Wakefield, Geier has had his medical license revoked in several states he has attempted to practice medicine in.
Geier pushed forward a treatment for autism that saw him embroiled in controversy, where he used the drug lupron as an unproven treatment for autism. Not only was there no evidence that this treatment was ineffective, it was extremely costly; initial testing could cost $12,000, while monthly treatments were $5,000, and in some cases recommended for patients into adulthood.
Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence, disgraced doctors and pressure from the medical sector there has been little sign of the anti-vaxx movement coming to an end. In our current society. In an era when the majority of people read their news online, whether from twitter, facebook or thier google feed, we are increasingly trapped within echo chambers and filter bubbles where our beliefs are reinforced. We are fed the news by algorithms that show us what we want regardless of what we should see. Our like minded friends share news stories from questionable sources and we don’t investigate or verify since they are reinforcing what we already believe.
We now live in an age where evidence-based theories are disputed, alternative facts are embraced, and information we don’t like is labeled as “fake news.” While personal beliefs are something held sacred in America, when those beliefs endanger others a line is drawn and those supporting the anti-vaxx movement continue to attempt to push that line further into territory that endangers others. Andrew Wakefield and David Geier both still have many supporters, and Wakefield has been traveling the U.S. giving talks mainly to parents of autistic children who believe his pseudo-scientific theories. Websites and articles are still all over the internet claiming government conspiracies or big-pharma schemes as the ones responsible for the plague of autism.
When parents once had to wonder if their child would be one of the 500,000 that would contract measles every year or be crippled by polio, vaccination was considered a miracle, and at one point was something only those well-off could obtain. If this movement continues a whole new generation that has not witnessed the suffering caused by these once-defeated diseases may bring them back into our world.