Why is the Myth Linking Autism and Vaccines So Persistent?

Dr. Andrew Wakefield initially proposed that the MMR vaccine causes autism in The Lancet (a medical journal) nearly two decades ago. Since then, a deluge of falsifying factors have been elucidated: The Lancet retracted the paper. No scientist has ever been able to replicate the results of Wakefield’s study. It was revealed that Wakefield was involved in a financial conflict of interest. Elements of the study were conducted unethically and fraudulently and he lost his medical license. And yet, according to a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll, only “52 percent [of Americans] think vaccines don’t cause autism…Conversely, 18 percent are convinced that vaccines, like the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, can cause the disorder, and another 30 percent aren’t sure.”

Urban myths often take on a life of their own, reproducing and embellishing new details in virtually regulated intervals. The pervasion of medical misinformation, however, is far more virulent than rumors of Big Foot and Sasquatch – particularly when it has direct effects on the lives of children.

In California alone, there have been over 50 reported cases of measles in just the past three and a half months, up from last years four cases in total. All over the country, rates of these diseases have surpassed all outbreak numbers since they were eradicated in 2000. The Council on Foreign Relations created an interactive map to illustrate the consequences of the anti-vaccine movement.

So why is this myth so persistent?

• The fundamentally enigmatic nature of ASD. No two victims are alike. Autism does not discriminate between socioeconomic class or race. Some can access verbal language; some have no vocabulary. A child with autism may have no reaction to painful stimuli, but be hypersensitive to quotidian sounds. Perhaps most troubling for the parent, a child may be developing normally, then abruptly make a 180.
• The culture of conspiracy and sensationalism. We live in a culture where conspiracy theories and fear-based propaganda can spread through the public psyche like wildfire with the simple clicking of “Forward Email.” Once something is released, even into a dusty, rarely-visited corner of the Internet, it will then exist indefinitely; it can never be truly destroyed. Furthermore, sensationalized stories – particularly those with doom and gloom subject matter – are what sells in modern society.
• Public figures – even those with minimal credibility – shout the loudest. Perhaps most well known among these is Jenny McCarthy, who founded the organization Generation Rescue and is leading the celebrity crusade against vaccines. She says in a CNN interview, “Without a doubt in my mind, I believe that vaccinations triggered Evan’s autism.”
• Organizations with purportedly credible fronts (and scientifically illegitimate claims) can perpetuate misinformation. All they need is a professional name and a website that appears reputable to take advantage of innocent people seeking empirically sound information. We’ve seen this just this past week, when Chili’s was faced with backlash regarding their decision to donate money to the National Autism Association – a pseudo-science organization that argues, “Vaccines can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many children.” (Chili’s has since cancelled their plans to donate to this group.)

So what can we do to end this myth once and for all? Mike Taylor of Research Trends suggests that to construct an effective rebuttal, the narrative must be simple, come from a figure trusted by the general public, and it should cite widespread medical consensus – essentially, it should mimic an advertisement.

Ultimately, the false link between vaccines and autism will never be fully obliterated. But this April, which is National Autism Awareness Month as well as the fourth month in a row in which measles outbreaks are at an all time high since the new millennium began, let us make a collective commitment to both honor those who suffer from ASD, and to do our part to slow the spread of misinformation about its causes. – by Betty Vine

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