As the mother of a child with autism, I have a message for Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the tireless prophet of the theory that vaccines cause autism: Please go away.
There is, alas, absolutely no reason to hope that Wakefield will do any such thing. In fact, on Monday, the day he was struck from the medical register in his native United Kingdom, the not-so-good doctor plainly told the Today show: “These children are not going away, these parents are not going away, and I am certainly not going away.”
And why should he? Wakefield still has loyal fans, from the parents still protesting on his behalf outside the General Medical Council’s hearings in London to the likes of erstwhile celebrity couple Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey. Last February, they defended Wakefield as the victim of a “well-orchestrated smear campaign” on the part of vaccine manufacturers.
Hey Jim and Jenny: The guy accepted more than 400,000 pounds from a legal aid fund that was soliciting scientific and medical support for a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers, about which arrangement he said nothing in the 1998 Lancet medical journal article that implicated the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR) in causing autism. Nor did he mention having applied for patents related to an alternative, "safe" vaccine that would have sold handily upon the invalidation of the MMR. He ordered that children needlessly endure spinal taps and colonoscopies, among other invasive procedures. He altered the profile of at least one of the children in his original study, enraging the child’s parents. What exactly would he have to do to lose stature in your eyes?
What really fascinates me here is not the mad doctor, but his mad followers. They’re new to my world, and yet I feel I know them. Over so many years in so many contexts, I have marveled at the power of blind faith to survive the most compelling assaults of clear-eyed reason. In the Middle East, I remember how almost child-like Islamic fanatics would explain, elaborately and emphatically, how George W. Bush is a secret Jew and it was on the order of about six other secret Jews — the ones who, you know, run the world — that he invaded Iraq. In South Africa, at the time of Nelson Mandela’s presidential election, I listened to a small, sad clump of defeated white extremists outline how it was actually the blacks who had stolen their land.
Now, through the miracle of the Internet, I sit in my Irish house and get to know a tribe of people who seem to need to believe that their children have been poisoned on purpose.
As with the Muslim and Afrikaaner extremists, I am seized with the urge to take a ride around the anti-vaccination crusader's mind-set. I want to ask these people: In your mind, how did it work? How did all the drug manufacturers and all the government agencies and all the medical societies and most of the pediatricians of numerous countries get together and agree on their awesome autism-spreading strategy? And why? I mean, if the evil, profit-mad drug manufacturers are getting so rich on the three-in-one MMR vaccine, couldn’t they — or some equal and opposite evil, profit-mad drug manufacturers — come up with a way to get rich on a “single jab” given three times? As for the pediatrician co-conspirators, on the front lines of the big lie, wouldn’t they actually make more money if the MMR immunity required three doctor visits instead of just one?
That’s one hell of a conspiracy. But let’s go with it. Let’s assume that all the public-health people pushing vaccines are liars and sops. We are still left with the fact that there are now numerous places in which the rate of vaccination has plummeted as a result of this scare. Several children have died, many have fallen terribly ill, as a result of the re-emergence of such diseases as measles. Yet the rate of autism has continued to climb. Given that, how can the magic link survive in anyone’s mind?
As with all the other fanatics, my desire to tease out the anti-immunization zealots on their thought process is mingled with the urge to throttle them. It’s not just that their vaccination fixation may crowd out investigation into other possible causes. By dint of having so disgracefully and dishonestly overplayed the MMR hand, I fear that this crowd may have even imperiled more nuanced study of vaccination itself.
I’m no expert, but my understanding of the consensus so far is that autism is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and one or more additional factors. While I accept that the vaccination-to-autism line as drawn by Wakefield and company has been thoroughly discredited, I don’t rule out the possibility that some future research might suggest some aspect of some vaccine that could be a factor for some children. That’s science: What we know today might look different in light of what we find out tomorrow. Based on what is established so far, however, I’d eat glass before I’d cast doubt on other parents’ decision to immunize. My personal desire to leave no stone unturned on behalf of my child simply does not give me the right to imperil the health of everyone else’s children.
Before I had — or rather, knew I had — a child with autism, I would have been much more sympathetic to Wakefield’s followers. I would have said, “The guy is a total quack, but these poor parents must be desperate for answers. No wonder they’ve gone insane.”
Not anymore. Now I firmly believe that the minute a child is found to have autism — or any real problem — is the minute the parents need to go sane. Our children suffer intellectual difficulties. We do not. We may have troubled hearts, sobered spirits, and forever-altered souls. But we have fully functional brains. For the sake of our children, let’s use them.