Do you still wonder if there's a link between vaccines and autism? Then ask yourself: have you or would you ever let your child travel by airplane? If your answer is "yes," then you should re-examine any concerns about vaccinating your children. Flying and vaccination both carry risks, but those risks are statistically unlikely to affect your family.
You should also know that Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who launched the autism-vaccine panic via a 1998 press conference, had his related research formally retracted and his medical license taken away. You should know that the mainstream media, after years of "considering both sides," now yawns when yet another study fails to find a link between vaccines and autism -- and that gossip sites like HollywoodLife.com want to know why anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy won't publicly end her campaign against children's health. You should consider that decreased vaccination rates put our children's health at risk; children can and do die from vaccine-preventable diseases, and those diseases are resurfacing with increasing vigor.
Still, no amount of evidence seems to satisfy parents who continue to believe in vaccine-autism causation. I understand fears like theirs, as I've been there myself. I remember the stone age of 2003: my two-year-old son Leo had just been diagnosed with autism, and I was desperate to help him.
My first action was to enroll Leo in an ABA program -- the only method proven to help children with autism gain skills. But ABA is hard work and doesn't promise miracles, and I wanted changes, fast. I craved a son who could tell me, "Mommy, I love you!," so I started exploring alternative autism therapies.
And indeed, I found many self-appointed autism professionals who wanted me to look past the challenging but loving boy I already had and focus on a theoretical Recovered Boy of the future. I also found myself looking past their promotion of scientifically questionable approaches, and focusing on one of their popular theories: they thought mercury in vaccines caused autism.
Those anti-vaccination people were passionate about "curing" autistic children. I was passionate, I wanted to cure my autistic child. I did what they told me.
I stopped vaccinating my kids.
My youngest child was born in 2004, eighteen months after her brother's diagnosis and during the thick of my alternative-treatment frenzy. Almost every autism activism resource I found implied or proclaimed that Leo's autism was likely caused by an injected environmental factor. I freaked out, and decided there was no way in hell my new baby girl was getting a shot of anything. Not even vitamin K.
As that fortunately healthy baby grew and thrived, so did the evidence refuting a thimerosal/vaccine/autism link. Unfortunately, so did the rates of preventable and potentially lethal diseases. Turns out I wasn't the only parent who'd been scared into tossing aside my kids' vaccine schedules.
I wanted proof that vaccinations had in fact affected my son, so I formally investigated a possible relationship between Leo's autism and the vaccinations he'd received as an infant and toddler. I enrolled him in a MIND Institute study on autism and regression that tracked the emergence of his autism symptoms via home videos, medical records, and my own journals.
The result: there was no evidence that Leo had regressed into autism after being vaccinated.
I thought long and hard. And decided that the risks of vaccinating my children were acceptable.
I started slowly, under the supervision of a pediatrician willing to listen to my concerns. My youngest child initially got only one shot at a time, only when she was healthy, and with a month between doses, because I wanted to see how she reacted to individual vaccines. She had no adverse reactions, so I began to allow vaccinations in small batches. I also resumed vaccinating my son -- you know, the one with autism. Both kids remain fine, or at least no quirkier than they were before their shots.
Mine is not the only vaccination perspective you should be familiar with, however. As you likely know, there is no talking about vaccines and autism without mentioning "safe" vaccine advocate Jenny McCarthy. Ms. McCarthy once declared:
"If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f___ing measles."
Really? If we're going to celebrities rather than experts for our information, I have to counter with the Law and Order: SVU episode Selfish, in which a child too young to be vaccinated died from encephalitis as a complication of measles; measles acquired at a neighborhood park from an unsymptomatic carrier kid whose mother refused to vaccinate him.
I'm sorry, Jenny, but Mariska Hargitay, Christopher Meloni, Ice-T, and Stephanie March say that measles kills and that we need to vaccinate our kids not just to keep them healthy, but also to protect other people's kids. And because the SVU team members are celebrities too but outnumber you, I'm going to side with them.
I kid, but only slightly, as I really do prefer my son alive, autism and all. And I seriously doubt Jenny would volunteer to give her son measles -- or pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria, tetanus, or polio, if she'd actually seen these diseases affect a child, or considered that acquiring the diseases is much riskier than getting vaccinated for them.
Jenny is not alone in underestimating the critical role of vaccines, or the diseases they prevent. In June 2010, I participated in a conference call with EveryChildByTwo, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public about vaccine-preventable disease. I listened as Danielle Romaguera described her infant daughter Brie's 2003 death from pertussis -- a disease herd immunity was supposed to protect the baby from, as she was too young to be vaccinated; a disease vaccine campaigns had squelched so successfully that her doctors didn't recognize it, not until it was too late. A disease that caused baby Brie so much pain and suffering that a Romaguera family friend chose to fully vaccinate her child with autism.
A disease that, seven years later, has been declared an epidemic in California. Katharine Mieszkowski of BayCitizen.org, using her organization's excellent interactive California immunizations statistics database, observed:
"Marin and Sonoma Counties have reported the highest rates of whooping cough in the Bay Area this year. They also have the highest local rates of personal-belief [vaccine] exemption."
When I talked with Katharine, she said that budget-challenged California schools don't always have the resources or a school nurse to properly monitor immunization compliance. She also said parents who took out personal belief exemptions were worried about possibilities like their kids' immune system being overwhelmed -- which, to me, means they probably weren't consulting a pediatrician on the matter. And a personal belief exemption doesn't differentiate between skipping a few vaccines, and skipping all of them -- so while we have data on vaccination non-compliance, we don't have complete information on specific vaccination rates. All we know is that California parents are choosing to put their children at risk.
We live in a culture where some people make critical health decisions for their children based on the opinions of celebrities rather than pediatricians. I'm asking you to help right the balance, to ensure that science-based viewpoints counter earnest but misinformed sensationalism in the autism -- and parenting -- communities' information flows.
I know that some people will never vaccinate their kids, no matter the argument or evidence (and 2010 has been a banner year for both scientific evidence and court decisions debunking autism-vaccine links). I also know some kids can't be vaccinated due to health or age conflicts. Herd immunity will compensate, will keep the unvaccinated kids safe from disease if enough other children get vaccinated. That is why we must reach out and talk to parents who are still formulating their immunization opinions, to educate with facts rather than furor, to have the confidence to spread the word about what we know, to tear down the wall of harm that anti-vaccinationists have erected, and to shout out loud:
There is no link between autism and vaccinations! I believe it is my social responsibility to vaccinate my child!
A version of this essay was previously published on BlogHer.com.