Autism Unexpected: The Vaccine Wars Make Me Tired


Frontline ran an episode about vaccines the other evening called The Vaccine War. It was a pretty good piece, but what it boiled down to is what these things always boil down to: one side says vaccines don’t contribute to autism, one side says vaccines do contribute to autism, and both sides hate each other passionately.

I intended to contribute my opinions about the content of The Vaccine War. In fact, I spent a good deal of time writing about the episode (which you can watch here) before I got too twitchy to continue. First, so much of what I wanted to say has been already said better and elsewhere. (Google “The Vaccine War” and you will come up with a long list of articles and blog posts on the subject.)

The thing that struck me hardest about this episode and the swirl of blog posts that followed it is that programs like this don’t do much to change people’s minds, they don’t do a whole lot to educate, they mostly just provide a forum for vitriol and anger.

Frontline’s piece was fairly even-handed, although it came down stronger on the side of the pro-vacciners, in my opinion. I believe that the science has strongly proven that vaccines do not cause autism. I fear that the more often these high profile pieces put “vaccines” and “autism” in the same sentences, the more that public health suffers.

Now, I’m not going to say that no one has ever been injured by a vaccine. People have reactions to them, yes. Saying that it happens to only a tiny, tiny percentage of people (which it does), doesn’t really help if your child is the one who has a reaction. However, for the vast majority of the people in the world, vaccines save lives.

Yet every story I’ve heard on the radio, every program on television, every article in a newspaper, includes parents who refuse to accept that there is no link between vaccines and autism. “What’s the harm in studying it?” they ask, as they hurl insults and derogatory nicknames at those who create the vaccines, and who, in fact, do study it.

Then the pro-vaccine people talk about herd immunity and measles outbreaks and the increase in vaccine-preventable diseases, while citing all the studies that have shown that vaccines are safe. In doing so, they create an atmosphere of defensiveness, where non-vaccinating parents have to defend themselves against accusations of selfishness.

I do appreciate that Frontline put forth a good, solid argument for vaccination. Of course, if they do so, they need to offer the alternate view (although the anti-vaccine faction has been vocal in stating that they were unfairly portrayed). It worries me that parents will accept the emotional, fearful argument instead of the more clinical, scientific argument.

To let you know where I come from, I am strongly in the pro-vaccine camp. I do not believe that vaccines contributed to my son’s autism in any way. All three of my children are fully vaccinated and have been so based on their pediatrician’s schedules and recommendations. I cringe when I hear of people who do not vaccinate and think of the children who are not yet of an age to be vaccinated and who are susceptible to illnesses because more and more people are unvaccinated. Yes, I have been guilty of thinking and saying unkind thoughts about the anti-vaccine camp and their leaders.

But more than all of that, I just wish this non-conversation could end.

See, the thing is that this debate and this vitriol does not exist in a vacuum. Beyond the fact that parents are swayed by the emotional argument and anecdotal stories about regression after vaccines is the fact that the more energy and dollars that go into covering and studying vaccines, which have already been thoroughly studied, the less energy and dollars go into covering and studying treatments and ways to improve the lives of autistic children and adults.

I would have much preferred to see Frontline run an episode on how special education cuts hurt children who already have autism. I would have preferred to see an episode on how and why IDEA, the federal law ensuring a free appropriate public education for special education children is underfunded. I would rather see a story about how people with disabilities—physical and neurological—are subtly and overtly discriminated against in our society and how we can bring awareness and understanding to their way of being. I would much rather have seen Frontline do a piece on the neurodiversity rights movement.

I wish that these important issues could be covered instead of yet another piece that puts the words “vaccines” and “autism” together.

Another reason that I’m not keen about writing about the vaccine issue is that I’m not completely excited about the angry comments I’m going to get. Let’s try to be civil here, people, okay?

Jean also blogs at Stimeyland and AutMont. And, yes, she gets the irony that she has written a piece that puts the words “vaccine” and “autism” together.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on May 6, 2010.