How a Discredited Report Turned Parents Into Anti-Vaxxers

How a Discredited Report Turned Parents Into Anti-Vaxxers

  • The report in The Lancet in 1998, was almost immediately renounced.
  • Pols on the right and left took the discounted threat seriously.
  • The media had a field day trying to get pols on the record.

As the CDC and the rest of the medical community has repeatedly stated, vaccines do not cause autism or brain damage. As this political cycle seems determined to prove, however, they do create a lot of political idiocy. And that side effect extends to both parties, and especially the media.

The issue goes back to 1998 and a now-discredited study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, which claimed to have found a causal link between a preservative found in vaccines (thimerasol) and autism. Vaccination skeptics began demanding an end to vaccination requirements for schools, while drug manufacturers withdrew thimerasol from most vaccines, many of which never had it in the first place, according to the FDA.

Related: Christie’s Vaccine Comment Alarms Health Care Pros

The rates of autism diagnoses didn’t change even with the withdrawal of thimerasol; in fact, they actually went up. Researchers immediately began to study Wakefield’s hypothesis, but could not duplicate his outcomes. In part, this was because the study itself was flawed, with only twelve subjects handpicked by its author, which prompted many to wonder why Lancet had published it at all.  

BMJ, another British medical journal, later determined that Wakefield had misrepresented and altered the data in the small sample in order to support his vaccination-skeptical conclusions. Lancet had already withdrawn the report at that point, but received even more criticism for its decision to publish it in the first place after the fraud was exposed.

Nevertheless, vaccine skepticism continues fueled in part by ignorance of the data and high profile celebrity campaigns, such as the efforts of Jenny McCarthy. The skepticism does not fit neatly along political lines -- vaccination skeptics run the gamut from the fringes of the anti-government right to the fringes of the progressive left.

In the midst of a whooping-cough outbreak in California last summer, the local Malibu newspaper  noted that its community – hardly a bastion of conservative thought – had vaccination rates usually seen in third-world nations. Not a single one of its schools meet the 90 percent threshold considered the minimum by public health officials to prevent outbreaks.

Related: Obama Cuts Vaccine Program, Despite Measles Outbreak 

For the past few days, though, the media has treated this like a strictly Republican issue. It started with a comment from Chris Christie while traveling in London this weekend that government should “balance” between the need to vaccinate and the beliefs of parents. The governor of New Jersey later clarified that he meant a balance on which vaccines should be urged and not vaccination itself, but the media latched onto the meme like a virus on a host.

Senator Rand Paul, a medical doctor himself (specializing in ophthalmology), was the next target. When asked, Paul stated that most vaccines should be voluntary except for a few core deadly diseases, calling those “times in which there can be some rules.” Later, though, he suggested the kind of causation that the discredited Wakefield study alleged by saying he’d heard of “profound mental disorders” in children after immunizations. 

Suddenly, the anti-vaccination stand was a uniquely Republican problem, and the media spent most of this week chasing down potential presidential contenders demanding to know their thoughts on immunization.

That’s a curious take from an incurious media. Seven years ago, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton pandered to the anti-vaxxers in their own coalitions. “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” Obama said at a campaign rally in April 2008. “Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Related: Obama Cuts Vaccine Program, Despite Measles Outbreak 

Clinton tried to steal a march on Republicans with a late-night tweet asserting that “the science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest”. What Grandma Hillary didn’t mention was her own 2008 position, captured at the time by The American Prospect. “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism,” Clinton wrote in a questionnaire from an autism activist group, “including possible environmental causes like vaccines.”

Meanwhile, the media has preened over the last few days about “settled science” while not taking a very close look at their track records. Jon Stewart spent Tuesday night railing at Paul, Christie, and the “mindful stupidity” of “science-denying affluent California liberals,” without noting that Stewart himself offered his platform to Robert F. Kennedy Jr in 2005 to promote the same kind of science denial from an affluent Massachusetts liberal.

The Washington Post, where Ruth Marcus cast this issue as a Republican episode of science denial, had just one week earlier offered an explainer that the problem wasn’t entirely limited to the left.

The policy positions staked out by Christie and Paul are also virtually indistinguishable from the White House, too. Both urged parents to vaccinate, but didn’t endorse a governmental mandate requiring it. That’s precisely what the White House says, too, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “The President believes it shouldn’t require a law for people to exercise common sense and do the right thing,” Earnest replied on a question specifically asking about the measles vaccine and the state-based regulations that allow parents to opt out for personal and/or religious beliefs.

In other words, most of the “news” along these lines is actually not news at all. It’s reminiscent of the way the media blew up the non-issue of contraception into a “war on women” in the 2012 cycle. Few are willing to force parents to vaccinate, while every potential candidate believes that vaccinations – especially the core vaccinations – are safe and necessary. Perhaps at some point we can get back to issues that truly matter in the next presidential race, such as national security policy, federal spending, and the economy, rather than chase media-created rabbits down non-existent holes.

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