The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the study that started a movement by parents to refuse vaccinations for their children had been debunked. The venerable British medical journal The Lancet, which had originally published the study, had withdrawn it, citing it was fraudulent. But it couldn’t withdraw the ongoing debate about a connection between vaccines and autism, and the growing backlash against parents who make a decision not to vaccinate their toddlers.
The debunked study by Andrew Wakefield is one that I know well. He published it in 1998, 2 years after my son’s autism diagnosis. At that time many of my friends were documenting on videotape their children’s regression into autism within days or weeks of receiving the Measles, Mumps & Rubella booster. I went back over my son’s records and videotapes of him and just couldn’t make the autism connection. But it didn’t stop my worry. What if the next MMR booster he was required to have in order to enter kindergarten were to erase the great progress he was making through early intervention therapies? What if he got the booster and we watched him regress into something much worse? Sounds ironic, but in order to protect him, I decided not to submit to the booster vaccination. We paid $1000 to for the hospital to draw several vials of blood and check my son for immunity to Measles, Mumps and Rubella. Test results showed he had immunity to MM and & R from his first vaccine, so I was able to get a medical waiver. (Unfortunately, I forgot to have his immunity checked against Chicken Pox. I chose to forego that vaccine and 9 years later at 14 he got a brutal case of Chicken Pox that took him out of school and left him scarred).
Wakefield’s research wasn’t the only thing that fueled the raging debate about a link between vaccines and autism – valid or not. What helped fuel it for parents of kids with autism was a total lack of any research by the CDC, the NIH, or other of our government’s scientific bodies into the effect of multiple, combined-dose vaccines on infants and toddlers with underdeveloped immune systems. By the time Wakefield came along, there was nothing out there to refute his study while the number of toddlers being diagnosed with autism was exploding. The Centers for Disease Control and all other agencies were totally unconvincing. They kept telling parents that there was no scientific evidence to show that vaccines caused autism. We parents said, “show us the scientific evidence that vaccines don’t cause autism,” and they couldn’t. Why not? Because no meaningful scientific research on the cause(s) of autism had ever been conducted thanks to the long-standing claim by Bruno Bettelheim and the medical establishment that autism was caused by bad parenting, in particular by “refrigerator mothers,” (See my documentary film Refrigerator Mothers) .
Research is finally underway, but the vaccine debate is the fallout of generations of scapegoating. The shame of it is that many of today’s generation of parents is being blamed for putting their kids and others at risk of deadly diseases by refusing to vaccinate their children. I don’t advocate not vaccinating your children, but I understand the angst and confusion that parents face when there are no answers. And when you don’t have any answers, it’s easy to blame the parents.