The Autism Debate
By: Anirudh Rao
As social media made it easier to spread misinformation on a wide scale, anti-vaccination groups thrived. Now motivated by the introduction and mass promotion of the (safe and effective) COVID-19 vaccine, these groups have recently seen notable legislative victories.
Lauren Gardner of Politico writes; “At least six states — Arkansas, Florida, Montana, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — have enacted legislation to limit Covid shot mandates, giving vaccine opponents some of their most prominent victories in recent memory”. An oft-used argument against the COVID-19 vaccine is the relatively short period of time between its development and usage on a wide scale. Although this reasoning is flawed for several reasons, the most interesting aspect of this argument is its relationship to other anti-vax arguments. Even vaccines that have existed for decades are still labeled as “unsafe” by anti-vaccine groups. Why? The answer in many cases, as mind-boggling as it may be, is autism.
A since-deleted tweet from 45th president Donald Trump in 2014 read: “Healthy young
child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!” Blatant misinformation from figures as prominent as Trump is only a symptom of the problem though, which stems from long-standing general mistrust in the medical community that has manifested itself most notably in anti-vaccination propaganda. The true source of the autism debate specifically, however, comes from decades ago. In 1997, a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in a prestigious scientific journal suggesting that the MMR vaccine (for mumps, measles and rubella) was increasing autism rates in British children. The findings of the study spread like wildfire, gaining a cult following of anti-vaxxers who vehemently defended the study.
Eventually, after the paper was labeled “fraud” by English medical authorities, the paper was removed from the journal and Wakefield’s medical license revoked. 12 separate studies were conducted in the decades after Wakefield’s publication, and not a single one was able to find a link between vaccines and autism. Even so, anti-vaxxers not only continued to believe the findings of the study, but extrapolated its conclusions to other vaccines as well.
For example, the CDC has a page on their website dedicated entirely to the nonexistent relationship between vaccines and autism. They specifically address the issue of thimerosal, a substance used to preserve vaccines that many anti-vaxxers cite as the autism-causing
“ingredient” in vaccines. As the CDC explains, however, not only have vaccines containing
thimerosal specifically been found to have no link to autism, the usage of the substance in vaccines has been almost completely phased out in recent decades.
Sadly, anti-vaxxers dismiss all information that doesn’t support their narrative as “what the government wants you to think”, instead opting to treat far less reputable information from unknown sources as unequivocal evidence to support their beliefs. What makes this belief even more baffling is the sheer volume of literature disproving their hypothesis. Googling “do vaccines cause autism” will provide an almost endless stream of medical study after medical study chronicling the nonexistent link between vaccines and autism. You would be extremely hard-pressed to find anything on Google that supports a link between vaccines and autism. But yet there is still a consistent pipeline of new anti-vaxxers. How? Mediums like forwarded messages on Facebook and other misinformation essentially hidden away on other social media platforms provide a steady stream of anti-vax propaganda to those looking to find it. For years, this propaganda has been an epidemic similar to the ones vaccines aim to prevent, but thankfully media sites are now finally taking the steps necessary to fix it.
For example, Facebook has taken drastic measures to increase vaccine awareness and limit access to misinformation pushing ideas like a link between vaccines and autism. Mike Isaac
of the New York Times explained in February: “Facebook said on Monday that it plans to remove posts with erroneous claims about vaccines from across its platform, including taking down assertions that vaccines cause autism.” As Ethan Lindenberg, a high schooler who caught the national eye after getting vaccinated against the wishes of his anti-vax mother said at a congressional hearing: “there always seems to be two sides to a discussion... This is not true for the vaccine debate.” There is no scientific ambiguity regarding vaccines and autism: there is irrefutable evidence to prove that there is no link between the two. The question now is clear: How do we break through to those who still cling to their beliefs? With the crackdown on COVID-19 misinformation seen in recent months, definite progress has been made. Only time will tell, however, if we have truly been successful in effectively curing the anti-vax pandemic.
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