The damage of the anti-vaccination movement

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The doctor who launched the modern anti-vaccine movement acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly,” Britain’s General Medical Council has ruled. But fear not. Dr. Andrew Wakefield is still a hero to his many acolytes. And others, with curious credentials, fight on to terrify parents into not getting their children inoculated.

In 1998, Wakefield wrote and then vociferously hawked an article in the British medical journal Lancet linking autism to the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella). After the council’s decision, Lancet this week retracted the article. Among the facts that have come out of the inquiry into Wakefield’s research is that two years before his paper appeared, lawyers seeking to sue vaccine makers paid Wakefield the equivalent of $700,000.

After Wakefield’s article appeared, vaccination levels plummeted in Britain and declined in the United States, and the diseases they prevented surged. Measles cases increased sevenfold in the U.S.


“One person’s research set us back a decade, and we’re just now recovering from that,” Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at Radey Children’s Hospital in San Diego, told me in an interview.

But are we recovering? Anti-vaccination groups have popped up like toadstools after rain (there are more than 180 on the Web), while older ones such as the National Vaccine Information Center were reinvigorated. For the most part, these groups have had only a marginal effect on national vaccination rates, but they have encouraged localized boycotts of immunization. (In one Washington county, 27% of children had vaccination exemptions in 2006-07.) The result has been a resurgence of diseases gone so long that some doctors don’t even recognize them. And children die because of it.

Before the MMR vaccine became available in 1971, measles, mumps and rubella annually afflicted 530,000, 162,000 and 48,000 U.S. children, respectively, killing a total of more than 600. By the middle of the last decade, there were fewer than 7,000 new cases annually and zero deaths. But the anti-vaccine groups generally claim the injections were irrelevant and that factors such as better nutrition caused the declines.

Meanwhile, their “science” comes down to little more than that autism symptoms are often first recognized at the same age that children are getting their first vaccinations. So they lumped the MMR in with a list of other childhood vaccines that formerly contained the mercury-based preservative thimerosal, although the MMR never contained thimerosal.

And don’t dismiss the power of a good old-fashioned conspiracy. “It’s astounding to me that people can imagine that America’s pediatricians and family physicians and public health officials are scheming to harm children,” says Sawyer.

Never mind that by 2008, more than 20 articles published in peer-reviewed medical journals found no connection between MMR vaccine and autism, while two suggested a connection -- one by Wakefield.


There’s also a mountain of reassuring evidence regarding thimerosal-preserved vaccines. The studies are a result of the United States and other countries -- while strongly reaffirming the safety of thimerosal -- giving in to activist demands and having it removed from childhood vaccines. That gave researchers a wonderful opportunity to do “before and after” studies.

Anti-vaccinationists initially claimed California autism cases dropped. False. The “data do not show any recent decrease in autism in California” despite the discontinuation of thimerosal use, the state’s Department of Developmental Services found in 2008.

Published evaluations of children in Sweden, Denmark and Canada also have shown that autism diagnoses continued to increase after the discontinuation of vaccinations with thimerosal. U.S. cases keep rising as well.

Some groups claim only to oppose mandatory vaccines, but this ignores the need for what’s called “herd immunity.” That means a certain level of the population must be vaccinated (generally around 85% to 90%) so those unvaccinated are still protected.

Lack of herd immunity is what killed Gabriella “Brie” Romaguera. The New Orleans baby died of pertussis, or whooping cough. At one time, this disease afflicted more than 250,000 American children yearly, killing 9,000. Vaccinations reduced that to just 1,000 new cases annually by 1976; but by 2008, cases had soared to more than 10,000 annually.

Brie contracted the disease when she was a month old, too young for her first pertussis vaccine. “I’m not laying blame,” her mother, Danielle, told me. “But people need to know they can infect other people’s babies. It kills. People think these diseases don’t exist anymore, but that’s only because children are being vaccinated.”


Romaguera is especially upset by “celebrity science,” as exemplified by Jenny McCarthy. The actress and former Playboy playmate claims vaccines made her son autistic but that she “cured” him. There is no cure. McCarthy’s antics include yelling at three physicians on “Larry King Live,” and exclaiming: “My son died in front of me from a vaccine injury!” Her son is alive, as she later acknowledged.

Yet she’d be little more than an opinionated pinup girl but for being invited to share her “expertise” on “Larry King,” ABC’s “20/20,” “Good Morning America” and other popular shows. All this has helped propel McCarthy’s two books on autism to bestsellerdom.

“Celebrities are entitled to support a cause,” said Sawyer. “But when they give professional advice, I think that’s dangerous.”

“It makes it hard for doctors,” said Romaguera. “Our pediatrician says parents tell him all the time they don’t care what the science says. And because of it, babies and kids are dying.”

Michael Fumento is director of the Independent Journalism Project, where he specializes in health and science issues.