Autism Unexpected: Paul Offit and the Anti-Vaccine Movement


On the same day that Andrew Wakefield’s now-discredited study about a causative link between vaccines and autism was declared “an elaborate fraud”, vaccine researcher and author Dr. Paul Offit spoke at the National Press Club about the anti-vaccine movement and the effect of that movement on public health.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield’s study linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) childhood vaccine to autism started a chain of events that would lead to decreased vaccination rates in children, an increase in vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks and a pervasive fear of vaccines by parents who learned to see innoculations as more dangerous than the diseases they prevented.

These fears ran rampant even as independent scientific studies discredited Wakefield’s study. Last year the Lancet medical journal, which had originally published the study, retracted it. The scientific community’s dismissal of Wakefield didn’t stop the anti-vaccine movement from continuing their campaign against vaccines or from targeting Offit, a vocal proponent of vaccines.

Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Offit was at the Press Club this week to promote his new book, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Offit, co-creator of RotaTeq, a vaccine against rotavirus (although he no longer financially benefits from sales of RotaTeq) is donating all of the royalties from this book to the Autism Science Foundation.

While the autism controversy is probably the most well known, the fear of vaccines began in 1982, according to Offit. That is when a D.C. NBC affiliate aired DPT Vaccine Roulette, a documentary that questioned whether children were more at risk from the pertussis vaccine than whooping cough.

Offit also told the story of John Salamone, whose son got polio from a live polio vaccine and who went on to spearhead a campaign for polio vaccine safety, which ultimately led to the medical community’s switch to the use of an inactive polio vaccine.

“I think there is a role for consumerism in vaccines,” Offit said. “It just has to be science based. [Salamone] was right. He certainly compelled me.” As for the autism-MMR theory, Offit said, “It’s a testable hypothesis. It’s been proved wrong.”

Regardless, Offit says that four out of 10 parents choose to withhold or draw out their children’s vaccine schedule, leading to an increased period of time when children are susceptible to these diseases.

While many parents consider non-vaccination to be a personal parenting choice, outbreaks of measles and pertussis in recent years speak to the very real dangers that come from these choices to not vaccinate. Those that are too young or too sick to be vaccinated are put at greater risk when the larger population is not properly inoculated.

“You don’t get a sense of greater social responsibility,” Offit said. “That notion that we’re all in it together is gone.”

Furthermore, because so many vaccine-preventable diseases are either eradicated or extremely uncommon, parents don’t understand the horrors that they used to present. Referring to anti-vaccine celebrity Jenny McCarthy’s famous statement that given a choice between autism and measles, she would choose the measles, Offit said, “When you can say, ‘I’ll take the measles every time,’ it shows how successful we’ve been. She has no idea what measles is like.”

Offit admits that it is extremely unlikely that even unvaccinated people will contract these vaccine preventable diseases. He insists that you have to look at relative risk. “The odds are with you, but they’re not zero,” he said. “Why put a gun to your head even if it has a million empty chambers?”

While there will always be a tiny number of children who suffer side effects from vaccines, the systemic danger has been repeatedly proven to be absent. The tragedy of contracting a disease from a vaccine or suffering a side effect is certainly not lessened by the fact that it only happens to a small number of children, but it is important to remember that vaccines are the reason why huge numbers of children aren’t suffering from diseases like polio, measles and pertussis every day.

Regardless of the discrediting of studies that claim vaccines are dangerous, these fears persist. While it is easy to create a compelling story around a parent who believes her child got autism from a vaccine, it is much more difficult to present complicated science in a short, easy to understand soundbite.

Furthermore, as Offit said in his Press Club talk, “The anti-vaccine people are tough.” Speaking out against them is a difficult proposition, inviting vitriol and anger.

The anti-vaccine movement relies on fears, unscientific as they may be, to further their cause. Although, as Offit said, “We are more compelled by our fears than our reason,” perhaps mainstream acknowledgment that studies such as Wakefield’s are erroneous and dishonest science will lead to more understanding of the good that vaccines do.

Originally published at Autism Unexpected on January 7, 2011.