I spent a bright and lovely morning doing anthropology among the vaccine skeptics, an angry group who blame the government for their children’s medical and psychiatric conditions. The occasion was Wednesday’s “Green our Vaccines” rally, a march on Washington led by the the actor Jim Carrey and his photogenic girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, the TV personality and mother of an autistic 6-year-old boy named Evan.
McCarthy, Carrey and an untold number of other people -– there were maybe 1,500 at the rally -– believe that something in vaccines causes autism. Science has laid to rest a theory blaming the measles-mumps-rubella shot, and the evidence also points away from the mercury-containing preservative, thimerosal. But Carrey and McCarthy have moved the goalposts. At Wednesday’s rally, the marchers chanted, “Too many, Too soon!” The new theory of the vaccine haters is that “too many” of these disease preventives somehow overwhelm the child’s immune system — a thesis there is no evidence to support.
The anger has deep roots, though. About 1 in 150 U.S. children is diagnosed with a form of autism, compared to perhaps 1 in 3,000 two decades ago. The higher diagnoses are mainly due to changes in psychiatric codings and increased educational and therapeutic programs for autistic kids, but there may be other explanations for part of the increase. The parents of these children have difficult lives and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to care for their kids. Feeling ripped off, they blame the government and industry, and say that environmental toxins and vaccines are responsible.
Over the decade I’ve reported on this issue, the believers have grown more and more entrenched in their convictions, to the point that it’s difficult to have a discussion because we’ve obviously been reading different material. Google University has many campuses and I’ve been attending a different one.
Blaming vaccines for autism is a small cottage industry backed by certain lawyers, alternative medicine practitioners and peddlers of dietary supplements that allegedly cure the damage done by vaccines. But whether their kids are getting better with such therapies or not, these parents’ convictions are unshaken.
Erika Stone, of Dallas, came to the rally with the righteous anger of a mother dealing with a severely ill child. She carried a sign that said, “We are your scientific evidence.” It had photographs of her 2 ½ year old son, Maxwell, and his mates from a special therapy program. Maxwell began to lose his language skills at 12 months. He’s sickly and mute and entirely dependent on her. “My child can’t say a word. He can’t hold a crayon, he can’t feed himself. If you play loud music next to him, he doesn’t even turn around.”
When Maxwell was about 20 months old, his mom heard about the vaccine theory. While the evidence of a vaccine link to her son’s condition didn’t convince me–regressive autism, of the type she describes, was known to occur long before the vaccine schedule increased — Stone said, “I believe it in the bottom of my heart – it’s something called mother’s instinct.”
If it wasn’t for the Internet, would you have been led to this conviction? I asked. “Probably not,” she said.
The group walked from its rally point under the Washington Monument, down Independence Ave (stopping to jeer at the Dept. of Health and Human Services) before filing on to the west lawn of Congress. It heard speeches from people like Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind), Boyd Haley, a University of Kentucky chemist, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer who displayed his ignorance of the issue in a sensationalist, error-filled 2005 article in Rolling Stone magazine.
As someone who has been following this hair-tearing controversy for a decade, I try to keep my cool, but I lost it once.
I was talking with a group of people (including a large fellow with “CDC Sucks” stitched on his shirt where the alligator should have been) when I was introduced to Wendy Fournier, an anti-vaccine activist I’ve debated on the radio. “Oh, it’s you,” I said. “I want to talk to someone less full of shit.”
No sooner had “shit” passed my lips than the people around Fournier called the rally monitor, who got on her radio and shouted, “Get a policeman over here!” The cop told me that since this was the Green People’s rally, they had the power to tell me to go away, even if I was a journalist.
I walked over to the little retaining wall around the monument and greeted Dan Olmstead, a former UPI editor who runs Age of Autism, a Website that champions the vaccines-cause-autism line and belittles those who disagree. Despite our profound differences, Dan’s an old journalist like me, and he thought it was wrong they’d sic’d the cops on me. We chatted for a while and then Terri Arranga, a “journalist” for Autism One, another vaccines=autism media outlet, came over, stuck a mike in my face and tried for a while to get me to comment about something I said on her program three years ago.
Then, McCarthy and Carrey appeared. The green-clad crowd went wild. “Jenny! Jenny!” they chanted, as the couple reviewed their troops on the lawn.
McCarthy agreed to what she called a “sound bite,” and a guy from “Access Hollywood” started to spoonfeed her questions. I was surprised — OK, disappointed: I love the actor Jim Carrey! — to note that Carrey did a lot of the talking. He offered many theories: evil drug companies, conspiratorial government scientists, etc. “How dumb does the CDC think we are?” (An intemperate question from a guy who, as Orac says, presumably doesn’t want us to think that “Dumb and Dumber” is a documentary.) Kids can’t assimilate all the vaccines, he said. We need more research that isn’t paid for by the pharmaceutical industry. “We don’t call that research, we call it propaganda.”
After asking his questions, the Access Hollywood guy suddenly became a promoter. “Jim and Jenny,” he said, “I’m proud to announce that you’ve been named Access Hollywood’s green couple of the week!”
At which point I saw my opportunity and after checking for rally monitors, asked, “How many vaccines, exactly, is too many?”
“In 1983,” McCarthy said, “our kids only got 10 vaccines. Now it’s 36” (actually, it’s 28, max, by age 2). I asked, “So should they only be getting 10? Which ones shouldn’t they get?” I saw McCarthy turning and asking someone, “Who is this guy?” Carrey responded, gamely. “Kids aren’t a bottomless pit you can pour toxins into, there has to be a limit,” he said.
“So what’s a vaccine they shouldn’t get?” I asked. “A lot of parents of autistic children would have opted not to get the tetanus shot,” he said.
Tetanus? Do they realize what it’s like to live in a pre-tetanus shot society, in villages where unvaccinated kids get tetanus –also called lockjaw. It causes your spine to arch as you writhe in agony for days and then die unless you are fortunate enough to get antitoxin. But then, Carrey and McCarthy haven’t been studying microbiology for the past 20 years.
The organizers were telling everyone to get off the grass, so I fell into step with McCarthy’s pediatrician, Dr. Jay Gordon, who’s a celebrated, or notorious, I guess, Santa Monica doctor because of his outspoken vaccine skepticism. Gordon has been an tiny thorn in the side of the pediatrics profession since 1979, and he takes obvious pride in going against the grain. I can see the appeal to going that way, too, but I don’t quite get his logic.
For example: “I think it’s good for you to get measles,” he told me. “It’s good for the immune system.”
He thinks all kids should get the measles?
“Yes, I do. The measles vaccine might be doing more harm than good.” This although, he tells me, “I know all the numbers.” (In the pre-vaccine era, measles killed 500 American children every year, caused 5,000 cases of permanent brain damage and innumerable hospitalizations. It still kills about 500,000 people each year in the Third World.)
The unvaccinated children in his practice are healthier, Gordon said. Not that he’s indiscriminately opposed to vacination. “Nobody wants a whooping cough epidemic.” He gives the DTP — diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (whooping cough) — vaccine, but he delays the shots until the babies are a year old.
One way to tell that preconceived belief, rather than rationality, is guiding someone’s actions is by determining whether a change in the evidence affects their outlook. Two plausible theories for autism were weighed by science and found wanting. But those who remain convinced of the link have a way of rationalizing their belief, almost extemporaneously.
Like most of the people I met at the rally, Gordon wasn’t impressed by the epidemiological studies showing that mercury in vaccines hadn’t caused an upswing in autism. But like a lot of the vaccine skeptics, he’s moved on to a new culprit, another element present in tiny amounts in vaccines, where it is used as an adjuvant to boost the immune response: Aluminum.