Wakefield's Wake, Part 7: Blowback can be fierce and frightening for autism-vaccine stories

Published on
January 28, 2011

A good friend of mine read my recent posts about Andrew Wakefield and the controversy over whether vaccines have any role in causing autism and asked me whether I was concerned for my safety.

Studies repeatedly show that vaccines don't cause autism, but, in large part because of Wakefield's faulty and now-discredited 1998 study that suggested a link, there is an ardent minority of parents, advocates and scientists who believe that vaccines – especially the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine – are poison.

So my friend said to me, "Is this safe for you to be writing about? For your family? For your job security?"

I was stunned. Not only because of the implication but also because this friend is not even from the United States or the United Kingdom, where the debate over vaccines has raged so hotly.

It underscored for me that journalists who take on vaccine conspiracy theories and other controversial topics need to prepare themselves and their editors for blowback.

Parents who are advocating for their children are fighters, as they should be. But they can start to develop an us-versus-them mentality.

The Chicago Tribune found this out when reporting its excellent series about scientifically unsound treatments for autism. The blowback was fierce and frighteningly personal. The anti-vaccine Age of Autism blog posted a digitally created image of reporter Trine Tsouderos at a Thanksgiving feast with a baby being served.

Science writer Amy Wallace was treated with the same photo, only with her face slapped into the gruesome scene. She described her struggles with anti-vaccine advocates, including a lawsuit, in a great piece for ReportingOnHealth. If you want to see how journalistic digging like Wallace's can make people extremely angry, look at some of the comments posted below Wallace's thoughtful commentary.

Michael Shermer nicely summed up this phenomenon in his Wall Street Journal review of The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin's new book about the autism-vaccine scare:

Parents whose children are diagnosed with autism (A) search for a probable cause; they remember that they had their children vaccinated (B) and forgivably assume that the correlation is causal. These parents worry for their children, enough sometimes to sue the companies that manufacture the vaccines.

Shermer goes on to show how that fear already has contributed to a public health threat:

Rates of unvaccinated children in New York and Connecticut, for example, doubled between 2005 and 2010. In New Jersey, they rose by 800%. In many other places around the country, they have fallen below the herd immunity rate of about 90%. The consequences are tragically predictable: Mumps and measles are on the comeback trail, and if this medical mass hysteria is not checked soon we could face a terrible resurgence in these deadly diseases, which killed hundreds of millions of people before the invention of vaccines.

Parents of children who have an autism spectrum disorder have had to make a choice. If they have chosen to believe in the vaccine-autism connection and the conspiracy theory that paints Wakefield as a martyr for the cause, then they have invested a lot of intellectual and emotional capital in a fraud. It's tough to dial back from that.

Parents who don't have a child with a disorder but who have chosen to keep their child unvaccinated also have invested in the conspiracy theory. They have decided that their child is at a greater risk of becoming autistic from a vaccine than they are at risk of getting a disease that may kill them.

The anti-vaccine advocates have invested even more in the scare. They have put a lot of capital – personal and financial – into the cause. Now that Wakefield's vaccine theories have been debunked, these parents and advocates will be looking for any opportunity to justify the dangerous choices they have made.

"I'm afraid that that brave journalists who bring up evidence for their audience about what they think people should know and people have the right to know may end in trouble for the journalist," my friend wrote me. "I hope this is not the case."  

Have a comment? Leave it below or send me a note at askantidote@gmail.com.

Related Posts:

Amy Wallace on Covering Vaccines: science, policy and politics in the minefield

Wakefield's Wake, Part 1: Media should help undo damage from vaccine-autism hoax

Wakefield's Wake, Part 2: Passionate parents of autistic children can be tricky sources

Wakefield's Wake, Part 3: Trust parents of autistic kids, but verify stories with health records

Wakefield's Wake, Part 4: Overcome confidentiality rules used to hide shaky science

Wakefield's Wake, Part 5: Treat advocacy groups with a healthy dose of skepticism

Don't call it a witch hunt: Scientists who perpetrated autism-vaccine scare should be called out