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Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars

27 May

A very interesting (and long) read from Public Library of Science (PLoS) entitiled A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars was published today. It takes apart the history of the vaccine/autism wars and tries to involve scientists on why they think – or what their particular discipline leads them to conclude – the autism/vaccine wars have become so protracted and bitter.

I’ve mentioned before – its always a bit of a strange, unreal sensation to see events in which you’ve been involved with – even as remotely as blogging about them – talked about as history. They say history is always written by the winning side. I hope articles like this don’t lead scientists to think that the war is over, the history is being written and they can go back to academia with no more comment necessary.

The PLoS article ends thusly:

Personal stories resonate most with those who see trust in experts as a risk in itself—a possibility whenever people must grapple with science-based decisions that affect them, whether they’re asked to make sacrifices to help curb global warming or vaccinate their kids for public health. Researchers might consider taking a page out of the hero’s handbook by embracing the power of stories—that is, adding a bit of drama—to show that even though scientists can’t say just what causes autism or how to prevent it, the evidence tells us not to blame vaccines. As news of epidemics spreads along with newly unfettered infectious diseases, those clinging to doubt about vaccines may come to realize that several potentially deadly diseases are just a plane ride, or playground, away—and that vaccines really do save lives.

I don’t disagree with any of that but I’ll now directly quote comment No.2 left after the PLoS article. A comment posted by a user called ‘bensmyson’ (and already I’m sure the battle hardened amongst us have recognised the type of person with a username like that).

Not that anything I say matters, but vaccines are not safe. My son at 12 months received ProQuad, a MMRV, later that month Merck pulled it from the market. My normally developed child with superior language skills developed encephalitis and as a result lost all those skills and developmental milestones and regressed into what has been diagnosed as autism. I know they aren’t safe because my son suffered a brain injury as a result. According to VAERS, 8 people have died because of ProQuad, Merck filed two of those reports themselves.

I’m not a scientist, just a parent of a child that got lost immediately after his 12 month vaccines.

With all due respect to the PLoS article which I really did enjoy reading and made very good points, I think the main point they either missed or that they are too polite to state out loud is that quite a lot of people _really don’t want_ to think it wasn’t vaccines.

The quoted comment demonstrates a lot of the hallmarks of what I think of as a sub-genre of anti-vaccine ideology – the autism antivaxer.

1) The immediate portrayal of themselves (not their child you’ll note) in the role of victim (‘Not that anything I say matters…’)
2) A coincidental regression into autism following vaccination with overtones of fault on the behalf of a vaccine maker/doctor/scientist
3) A statement that they _know_ (not think, not believe, not ‘are sure’) vaccines aren’t safe because their child _was_ damaged ) _as a result_ (‘I know they aren’t safe because…’) of having one. Note the lack of any sort of logic or requirement for evidence.
5) A reliance on a ‘sciency’ sounding method of backup which in reality offers no such thing (‘According to VAERS…’)
6) An emotive sign off with an appeal to false knowledge (‘I’m not a scientist, just a parent…’)

These are people who have spent a long time online and offline sharing time with other people of a like mind. They have stopped thinking critically and have started thinking communally. Stepping away from the voice of the community would be dangerous for both their continuing friendships and also for their own state of mind, therefore it is easier all round to simply lock out everything that presents any sort of difficulty or challenge to their belief system. If PLoS or anyone else thinks that these people (those clinging to doubt about vaccines) ‘may come to realize that several potentially deadly diseases are just a plane ride, or playground, away—and that vaccines really do save lives.’ then I’m afraid they are deluding themselves. I’ve had conversations with people just like ‘bensmyson’. Here’s a choice quote from one such debate from Twitter:

kids without #vaccinations more likely to get whooping cough. isn’t that better than getting shot up with #antifreeze ?

Doesn’t that make your head hurt just reading it? This person is happy to announce that:

1) There is anti-freeze in vaccines, which there most definitely is not.
2) Its better to get whooping cough than a DTP jab. I wonder if the poor parents of Dana McCaffery feel that way?
3) The reason its better to get whooping cough (a potentially fatal illness) is that the vaccine has antifreeze in it (which it doesn’t).

The level of arrogance, conspiracy mongering, self-pity and anger amongst too many of these people is so very much more than the PLoS article accounts for. Good as the article is, I fear its far too early to begin the dissection of this stage of the recent past.

Edited for typos via email by Sully. Ta 😉