The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘immunization

West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline¬†episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Photo by Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images

For that power can influence a large segment of the population. British doctor Andrew Wakefield, the origin of the anti-vaccine movement by suggesting MMR vaccines played a role in developing autism spectrum disorder in children, was accused of dishonesty and irresponsibility last week by the General Medical Council.

The Guardian’s story (UK news outlet) reports the GMC accusing Wakefield of conducting unnecessary and invasive tests on children after receiving conditional approval for his hypothesis from the Royal Free committee. The article lists other ethical violations conducted by Wakefield, including tests and procedures that were unnecessary for the study subjects’ health and failing to include details of his studies, such as funding. The GMC will make a ruling in April. If Wakefield is found guilty of professional misconduct, his medical license could be stripped.

We’ve already seen the damage caused by supposed the MMR vaccine/autism link, despite several major studies proving the contrary. Wakefield’s theory caused a sudden drop in MMR vaccinations in the United Kingdom and a mumps outbreak soon followed. West of the Atlantic, faces of the cure autism movement, including Jenny McCarthy, voice concerns about vaccinations causing autism. Before you brand these people idiots, it’s perfectly healthy to express skepticism in the face of presented evidence (the global warming bombshell during the December Copenhagen summit reminded us of the shortcuts people take to fit their argument). As I mentioned last summer when I talked about a Jenny McCarthy profile article, skepticism makes sure the science is right.

Is it surprising Wakefield’s ruling drew many protesters who still support him? When you apply the skepticism argument, hardly. The ruling came 12 years after Wakefield first proposed a link, which left a lot of time to get a movement behind him. Complicating the message is the timing of the MMR vaccine. The shot is administered around 18 months of age for a child, which is also the time symptoms of autism begin to appear in children. With an indisputable cause nowhere in sight, parents or relatives who don’t fully process the situation often point fingers at the most recent event in the timeline, which is very likely MMR or another vaccine. Parents concerned about immunizations often claim their children were developing normally until they received a shot, even though no link has been established.

In the short-term, the story got some press in local and national outlets in the United States, but I don’t see a major shift vacating the idea that booster shots and autism share a link. Cable news and online columns contribute to a massive harvest where viewers can pick their interests, tuning out any argument that confronts those viewpoints. Until a cause is found, I expect those behavioral patterns to appear with the anti-vaccine movement inside the autism community. However, the accusations against Wakefield also serve as proof that healthy skepticism is effective; when someone presents a theory that has little to no scientific credence, the drawing behind the theory may not be complete. Going further on the ethical road, we can point to a disease outbreak caused by a decrease in shots in the UK. If a link does exist, is saving a child from a developmental disability worth the risk of contracting a disease that is completely preventable?

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 31, 2010 at 10:45 pm