…because 4's a crowd…
The recent outbreak of measles in major American cities has thrust vaccines – and specifically the parents who choose to opt-out – into the limelight. Many keyboards have suffered as angry bloggers, writers, celebrities and scholars alike voiced their arguments for and against vaccines. But where did the growing anti-vaccination movement start? I want to trace back the anti-vaccination movement using three expressions that I think are the most important: The researcher whose findings started it all. The celebrity who is the movement’s biggest cheerleader. And autism advocacy groups allocating large sums to bring attention to and eradicate the disorder.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in the esteemed British medical journal, The Lancet, in which he linked the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine to autism. The Lancet knew it had a potentially volatile paper and had it heavily peer-reviewed before deciding to publish. The overwhelmingly small sample size of twelve children was barely representative of the millions of children the vaccine is given to each year. Still, for the reasons of freedom of speech, The Lancet decided to go ahead and release the study, but didn’t include it in its weekly press report.
The study would have been forgotten had London’s Royal Free Hospital not put together a panel of five-doctors for a press conference with Andrew Wakefield present. The press conference ended with Wakefield urging only annual vaccinations and other doctors insisting the MMR vaccine to be safe. Of course, headlines the following day only focused on the new, the game-changer, and anti-vaxxers to this day cite the study as ground-breaking.
Jenny McCarthy was one of the fore-most advocates for the movement. Her staunch stance on the issue is based on her observation that her son Evan developed autism not long after receiving the vaccination. She used her fame as a Playboy model and co-host of a dating show on MTV to bring national attention to her opinions, especially when it was framed as a celebrity dispute with actress Amanda Peet.
McCarthy was not alone in flaming the anti-vaccination movement. She also had the support of national autism advocacy group Autism United, who were calling for a boycott of Amanda’s movies. Many other autism awareness groups followed suit, and even if they weren’t outright supporters for the movement, they were willing to entertain the idea.
Since the recent (and rising) outbreak of measles, these very same groups are telling people to vaccinate their kids. In May 2014, Autism Speaks shared a report that showed no link between autism and vaccines. Three years earlier, they had entertained Andrew Wakefield as guest speaker of a National Autism Association event which they had sponsored. This turn around is not simply due to the reappearance of measles in recent months. It was brought on because Andrew Wakefield’s original study has been retracted by The Lancet. When larger, more representative studies tried to replicate Wakefield’s study, they were conclusively unsuccessful. But most damning of all was a subsequent study by the British Medical Journal which showed that the limited sample had been carefully selected to show the desired results. In 2010, it was found that Wakefield’s study was funded in part by parent’s seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages.
One would imagine for this to irrevocably damage the anti-vaccination movement, but if anything this has made them even more adamant in their stance. Political scientists claim this is because such opinions, akin to political and religious viewpoints, are rooted in emotional loyalty. It is based the reason why the same phenomena can lead one person to faith and another to disbelief.