The recent KatVonD scandal has the online beauty and life-style community all worked up about a subject it usually stirs clear of: vaccination and its supposed link to autism. A quick recap for those who have no interest in make up blogs and gossip magazines: Kat Von D is a very famous make up artist and entrepreneur, who is currently pregnant with her first child. In her social media pregnancy announcement, she also mentioned how she and her partner are not planning on vaccinating their child once they are born. The furious debate that ensured divided fans and vaccination advocates into two camps: those who believe Kat Von D has the right to do whatever she pleases with her offspring and those who are outraged that she would use her platform to promote a choice that is by all medical standards incredibly dangerous and irresponsible. As a medical scientist, I find it unbelievable that anyone would deny their child freedom from a host of life-threatening diseases. As a human being, I find it unconscionable that they would not only refuse to protect their child, but willingly deny the protection of heard immunity to other, immunocompromised children, who would have never had the opportunity to grow up only a few decades ago. This is not the point of this article.
The vaccines-cause-autism conspiracy has been going on for quite some time. If you have not had the time or inclination to look into it, here is what happened. Children in most Western countries, including the US and the UK, receive the second dose of the MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps and rubella) around 4 years old. This is a very important time in the development of a child’s motor, cognitive and sensory skills and it is also around the age when most children with autism are first diagnosed. These two events are linked by a correlation (same age) as opposed to causation (if you are interested in learning more about the difference, please check this out). In the late nineties, a group of parents wanting the sue the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine over this supposed link hired a law firm, who quickly realized that the case would be thrown out of court as for lack of proper evidence. Therefore, they funded the studies of a British doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield, who ended up publishing a very famous vaccines-cause-autism study in the medical journal Lancet. The scientific and medical community has done everything that is humanly possible to stop the consequences of this study from spreading and doing real harm. The study was shown to be deeply flawed (chiefly, it was reporting what happened in a very, very small number of children). The paper was retracted. Andrew Wakefield is no longer a doctor. Unfortunately, it was too late. The proverbial conspiracy cat was out of the bag. Perhaps as a direct result, MMR vaccination rates have slightly decreased in the US and the UK. As a result, the US reported its first measles epidemic in a very, very long time. Over three thousand children were hospitalized and 75 children lost their lives. Sadly, that was not an isolated incident. Measles outbreaks have continued to crop up in the US and in Europe. Since January 2016, 57 children have died of measles in Europe alone. What’s particularly heart-wrenching is that those most at risk of death during these epidemics are immunocompromised children who were never strong enough to be vaccinated (whether because they have a condition or because they are simply too little). Half of the children who died in the NYC outbreak of the late 1980s were HIV-positive kids who were never vaccinated.
And yet, enough people believe that vaccines are harmful, whether because they directly cause autism or some other ailment (sudden infant death syndrome, cancer, allergies, autoimmune diseases and a variety of other ailments have all been blamed on vaccination) that a media-savvy celebrity can publicly decree that she does not believe in vaccinating her children without fear of being ostracized. The real question is why. We are a society that readily accepts modern medicine as being broadly speaking a good thing. Even people who are fully invested in New-Age, “alternative” medicine will almost without fail resort to “traditional” medicine when they feel in danger for their lives (when they have a heart attack, or cancer, or get into a car accident for example). The real issue, I believe, is that we as humans find it reassuring to believe that uncontrollable, unpredictable things are, in fact, under our control.
Autism is scary for any parent – because it can strike at any moment, and affect any one, and there is not a single thing that they can do to protect their child. The same is true to a certain extent for SIDS and childhood cancers. Of course, we can put our babies back to sleep flat on their backs on a hard surface and feed them a healthy diet and encourage them to exercise once they are grown, but we cannot protect them from all the horrible things that can happen to them. What’s more, it feels unnatural and so wrong that something bad could ever happen to them. That is why the idea of vaccines being responsible for all evil is so appealing. It’s something man-made, “unnatural”. It’s something we can easily stop. It’s entirely within our control. It is the magic answer to our need for a culprit.
If you are a parent, or you are expecting and you are at all struggling with the idea of vaccinating and by any chance you are reading this, please stop for a second and listen to your inner voice who is scared of vaccines. Be honest with yourself, is it vaccines you are afraid of, or is it the world? And if it is the world, please, please do not make it an even scarier place for yourself and everyone around you. Please, please, please vaccinate your babies.