Eleven years ago I wrote an article for Men’s Health about my autistic son. Somewhere in the middle of it I mentioned the “remarkably paranoid” theory that autism is linked to childhood vaccinations.
I didn’t say where the idea came from—a study published in The Lancet in 1998—only that it had been “repeatedly debunked.” British journalist Brian Deer had already raised the possibility that the research was fraudulent, and that the author, Andrew Wakefield, had financial incentives to create fear of the MMR vaccine.
Why in the world are we still arguing about vaccinating our kids?
But the full story was even worse. We now know that Wakefield recruited his study’s 12 subjects at his own son’s birthday party. He paid the children to draw their blood, and then lied about what he discovered, as revealed in subsequent interviews with their parents. The study was retracted by The Lancet in 2010, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the U.K.
You’d think the controversy would’ve ended there. But it was just getting started.
In 2005, environmental attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. connected vaccines and autism in an article published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon. Kennedy’s investigative style is prosecutorial, and many found it persuasive… until Salon withdrew the article because of its many inaccuracies, and Rolling Stone published a series of embarrassing corrections.
But that was nothing compared to what happened two years later, when actress and model Jenny McCarthy claimed that vaccines caused her son’s autism. Good looks, charisma, and self-confidence go a long way in the marketplace of ideas, as McCarthy showed in her many TV appearances. Even her claim that she got her degree from “the University of Google” endeared her to those who trust their own search-engine skills over mainstream medicine, science, and journalism.
The upshot is that we have the return of diseases once thought eradicated, like measles and whooping cough. And for what?
Surprisingly, most of us agree
First, a few facts:
The safety and efficacy of vaccines isn’t actually controversial. A 2014 Pew Research Study found that 86 percent of scientists, and 68 percent of American adults, agree with the idea that vaccinations should be required for all children. (Thirty percent of Americans hold the opposite view, that it should be the parents’ choice.) That 18-percent gap shows much more agreement between the public and scientists than was found for issues like climate change, evolution, and the safety of GMO foods.
Moreover, vaccination is among the few issues that isn’t overtly partisan, or indicative of religious belief. There’s no clear red state/blue state divide. Mississippi’s kindergartners have the nation’s highest vaccination rate, at 99.7 percent. This compares to about 90 percent nationwide. (In Pennsylvania, where I live and where Men’s Health magazine is based, only about 85 percent of kids are fully vaccinated, possibly because we have the nation’s highest Amish population.)
So why are we talking about this now?
Mostly it’s because of the recent measles outbreaks at Disneyland and elsewhere. Measles is extraordinarily contagious. All it takes to catch it is to breathe the same air as an infected person. You don’t even have to be in the room at the same time; the virus stays airborne for up to two hours. Our only defense is “herd immunity.” That is, the overwhelming majority of a population needs to be protected to keep a virus from spreading. For measles, herd immunity requires a 95 percent immunization rate.
Herd immunity does more than protect the individuals who get vaccinations. It protects those who’re too young or sick to get inoculated, along with the few whose vaccinations are ineffective.
Partly, though, we’re talking about it because it’s the public-affairs equivalent of a Jerry Springer episode. As reporter Dave Weigel joked on Twitter, “You may not like the vaccine story, but political reporters are grateful.” It saved them, he said, from covering Washington’s annual kabuki dance over the federal budget.
But there’s one more aspect that, I think, increasingly comes into play.
Against the herd
The Pew study found one profound divide in attitudes toward vaccination: between young and old. Forty-one percent of adults under 30 believe vaccination should be a choice, rather than a requirement. That compares to just 20 percent of those 65 and older. Conversely, there were no differences based on income, gender, education, or ethnicity.
So what’s different about millennials?
An earlier Pew study found that they’re far more socially connected than previous generations. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those Baby Boomers that other generations love to hate.) They’re also more likely to consider themselves politically independent, less likely to be married or religiously affiliated, and, more to the point, far less trusting of others.
Just 19 percent of young adults agree that “most people can be trusted.” That compares to 40 percent of Boomers, 37 percent of seniors, and 31 percent of Generation X, which was once thought to set a high bar for cynicism.
So whom do they trust? Based on their support for gay rights and marijuana legalization, it would seem they trust themselves more than anyone else, and people like them. Perhaps that’s why they’re the least likely of the four generations to describe themselves as patriotic, or as environmentalists. And perhaps that’s why so many young adults are persuaded by the anti-vaccine arguments of passionate amateurs and maverick doctors, and reject the measured monotone of the medical profession.
As a journalist, I can relate. My entire profession is based on skepticism about the wisdom and motives of the people who run things. But we’re now 17 years into the anti-vaccine era, and all the evidence points in one direction. All the research and all the reporting confirm the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
It’s not because scientists and doctors and reporters haven’t examined the possibility that the official positions are wrong. Careers are made with paradigm-changing discoveries and regime-toppling investigations. That’s how people win Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. If there were a true link between vaccines and autism, or any other health risk, we would know it by now.
Or, I should say, we would almost certainly know it. There’s no such thing as 100 percent assurance, in science or journalism. There’s only the overwhelming weight of evidence.
Consider this a plea for sanity: If you have children, please get them fully vaccinated before they start school. And in future decisions affecting the health and welfare of your fellow citizens, don’t accept the University of Google as a valid credential.
Which Shots You Really Need
Lou Schuler is an award-winning journalist and the author, with Alan Aragon, of The Lean Muscle Diet.