A young person receiving a vaccine from an adult.

Arguing About Vaccines While Rome Burns

The United States is deep in the throes of measles outbreaks on two coasts, in the Bay Area and New York City, with isolated patches of the disease elsewhere. This fully vaccine-preventable illness, which was officially ‘eliminated’ from the US, is experiencing a renaissance for one simple reason: people aren’t vaccinating their children, and they aren’t getting their adult boosters to ensure continued immunity throughout life.

It seems absurd, given that measles can be fatal and it can cause long-term neurological impairments in patients who recover from the infection. This applies not just to children, but also immunocompromised adults who can’t get vaccinated; people who are HIV+ or have autoimmune disorders are at serious risk if they get infected with measles. When an easy preventative step is available to address an illness with potentially serious consequences and people aren’t taking advantage of it, one is, quite reasonably, led to ask: why?

We have Andrew Wakefield to thank for the fear and hatred of vaccines in the US, thanks to a bogus study published in 1998 claiming that there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. In a world where autism is considered a terrible, life-ending diagnosis for parents, who portray themselves as victims when they have autistic children while ignoring the existence of autistic adults and denying autonomy to autistics and the self-advocacy community, the study caused panic. Parents felt that they had an explanation for neurodivergence and a natural variation of human existence that they viewed as negative, unpleasant, a sign of disease and wrongness.

So some stopped vaccinating their children, and celebrity spokespeople lent their voices to the cause, reinforcing the idea both that autism is bad and that vaccines cause it. With organisations like Autism Speaks claiming to speak for autistic people and promoting an eliminationist, hateful approach to autism, the common social perception of autism is as something so awful that it shreds families, ruins lives, and destroys its victims (who are often depicted not as the people who are autistic, but as the people around the autistic person).

With people like Jenny McCarthy proudly proclaiming that vaccines cause autism and people should stop vaccinating their children, it became trendy not to vaccinate. It became trendy to have things like chicken pox parties, where infected children played with classmates to spread the infection in lieu of getting the vaccine — as someone who grew up in an era when the vaccine wasn’t widely available, I can personally testify to the fact that getting the infection is a miserable experience, and puts you at risk of serious complications like shingles as an adult, but parents are apparently willing to run this risk.

Unvaccinated children aren’t provided with a choice in the matter — children in general lack autonomy in US culture, and thus can’t declare for themselves whether they do or do not want given medical treatments, especially at the young ages recommended for most routine childhood vaccines. They don’t have the opportunity to exercise informed consent: this is something their parents are supposed to do for them, and parents, evidently, are choosing to reject very safe opportunities to prevent serious infections because a ‘study’ published almost two decades ago said vaccinations were bad.

Said study was, of course, retracted in 2011, and a flurry of publicity followed, yet the idea that vaccines cause autism has persisted. Why? Why are people so firmly clinging to this belief, and why are they endangering not just their own children but society as a whole by not vaccinating them?

Because even the suspicion of autism is frightening. To have an autistic child is to have failed as a parent, because autism clearly means something is wrong with you. Those seeking causes for autism want some sort of explanation they can pin on it, and, of course, they want a ‘cure,’ a way to eradicate this variation on human existence and cognition from the face of the Earth, because autism is bad. Autism is the thief in the night that steals your children and replaces them with terrifying automatons. Autism is the thing that will leave your child dependent and helpless for her entire life. Autism is the incarnation of evil.

Or, at least, this is what people seem to think, and it’s what neurotypical-run ‘advocacy’ organisations promote. Thus, if there’s anything a parent can do to ‘prevent’ autism, the opportunity is seized upon, even if it’s been disproved by science, even if it’s been thoroughly explored and debunked by skilled and competent researchers. Even if it puts other people at risk. The self-righteous parent who refuses to vaccinate argues that she is protecting her children from a horrible disease, one worse than that which the vaccines could prevent, and thus that she is doing the right thing.

In a recent University of Chicago study, researchers found that 20% of respondents apparently believed that vaccines cause autism. 36% more responded that they ‘neither agree[d] nor disagree[d],’ which is an alarming number of people to be on the fence when one considers the overwhelming science refuting so-called vaccine studies suggesting that autism and other intellectual, cognitive, and developmental disorders are linked to vaccination. This means that less than half of the people surveyed believed in, well, basic science.

Medical conspiracy theories, as the University of Chicago study put it, are alive and well in US culture (this wasn’t the only theory they studied), raising important questions about how well medical information is being communicated. And how long bogus information sticks in the heads of people exposed to it, creating an environment in which incorrect data are allowed to dictate public health for years, with potentially serious intergenerational effects.

Here in the United States, rigorous vaccination has built up strong herd immunity, and it’s beginning to crumble. That puts lots of people at risk, and it’s all being done in the name of fear of something many of us live with every day, something some people want to call a ‘disorder’ but we prefer to think of as a part of ourselves. I wouldn’t want someone to cure my autism any more than I’d want to take back my vaccines — including my recent round of adult boosters to protect myself, and the people around me, from the potentially serious risk of infectious disease.

The risks of vaccination are extremely low. In the vast majority of cases when side effects emerge at all, they’re along the lines of low-grade fever, swelling, bruising, and general funkiness for a day or so. While fatal reactions can occur (primarily with the yellow fever vaccine), they are extraordinarily unusual, especially if patients are careful to report any known allergies and past bad reactions, and to discuss the best vaccine schedule for their needs with their doctors.

The benefits — personally and socially — of vaccination are extremely high. When vaccines hit the market in a big way in the 20th century, they were a revolutionising moment for medicine in a world where diseases like polio routinely killed children or left them with lifelong impairments (an estimated six to eight polio survivors are still using iron lungs). Turning our backs on this development as a society at the directive of bad science is a terrible betrayal of all the hard work that’s gone into the development of vaccines, and it’s also a terrible betrayal of the autistic community.

Are we so repulsive that you’d rather die, or kill people, than be autistic?

Photo: Vaccination by Sanofi Pasteur/Flickr.