One would think that when public health officials are worried about a dramatic rise in cases of infectious childhood diseases because parents aren’t vaccinating their kids, it’s time to stop taking your medical advice from celebrities and conspiracy theorists. However, as is the case with most things we don’t really understand very well, people are getting more and more afraid of the same medical technology that wiped out smallpox and polio just a few generations prior with stunning success. And that’s quickly turning into a huge health hazard which is only being made worse by woefully misguided celebrities on a mission.
The story sold by the anti-vaccine movement has all the elements of a made for TV drama. Evil medical conglomerates on a mission to make money at any cost. A rogue researcher who took it upon himself to reveal their evil ways only be to be attacked by Big Pharma henchmen afraid to see their vaccine empire crumble before their eyes. It even has big name celebrities attached to the cause. A small problem with all this however, is the fact that the anti-vaccine movement started out with a case of medical and research fraud by a doctor who was working for a lawyer trying to sue vaccine makers for “causing autism.” Even after the reality behind Dr. Wakefield’s infamous research was made public, the anti-vaccine movement insists that his studies must be true and the reporter who exposed them must be a hatchet man for the medical industry.
Why are the anti-vaxxers (to borrow a term from Phil Plait) so insistent to sticking to their guns despite overwhelming proof that vaccines work? Because to them it’s not about the vaccines or the science. Rather, it’s about their distrust of big companies and attempts to pin the blame for what seems to be an epidemic of autism. And this is where Wakefield’s study gives them one of those perfect excuses to attach their legitimate concern to their favorite villain. The popularity of alternative medicine dealt a major blow to modern medical science. It’s practitioners needed to overcome Big Pharma’s supremacy in the healthcare industry and they decided that the best way to do it was to create a PR narrative where the likes of Merck, Eli Lilly and Pfeizer weren’t the guardians of our health but greedy monsters who wouldn’t think twice about selling poisons to us and our children if it will net them an extra dollar.
Of course medical corporations exist first and foremost to create shareholder value, like every commercial entity, and that very reason is why they would’ve adopted any alternative medicine that could be proven to work. It costs around $800 million to take a new pill from the lab to the pharmacy counter. If some random plant root could be bottled up into a pill and was a lot more effective than anything they could make in the lab, they would be the first in line to use it. Why? It drops R&D costs, speeds up time from lab to clinical trials and to the market and generates a better ROI since their “natural” pill is on the market longer and enjoys the protection of a patent for an extra few years. In fact, Big Pharma uses a wide variety of natural substances like venoms and plant leaves when developing new drugs. And contrary to alternative medicine claims, you certainly can put a patent on a plant extract and sell it in pill form.
However, people’s mistrust of authority and big corporations gives alternative medicine plenty of pity points and the idea that Big Pharma is evil has taken deep roots. Now we can blame trace amounts of mercury in a long discontinued vaccine preservative for autism and accuse a giant evil industry of poisoning us for profit because after all, so many people are saying that a huge pharmaceutical company would do that to protect its oligopoly on healthcare. We can even try to question the effectiveness of vaccines with straight faces despite all the diseases they helped to suppress and the fact that when we stop giving them and sabotage herd immunity, all those diseases start coming back. It’s culture vs. science and the facts don’t really matter anymore. I understand that parents of autistic children are frustrated. I’ve seen how difficult it is for them and I know it’s tempting to find a villain and feel like we’re on the verge of preventing a flood of autism, but the reality is much more complex.
The big question the anti-vaxxers pose is why there’s an outbreak of autistic children. Well, the answer to that is not very clear cut. You can’t just take a blood sample and determine whether a child has autism based on a chemical analysis. It’s a very complex condition that carries with it a whole host of problems doctors are still trying to understand. A diagnosis could be more of a bureaucratic matter than a medical one. Some experts believe that earlier versions of the DSM, the guidelines by which conditions are diagnosed by psychologists, were restrictive in what can constitute autism and the condition was under-diagnosed. The subsequent revision had a less restrictive definition and there are concerns that we may be over-diagnosing autism and since the condition is so complex and requires a whole lot more research, we don’t have that great of a handle on exactly how many cases of autism there are. To boil down this complex problem to a few simple shots is like trying to solve an integral calculus problem on the back of a napkin. It can be done, but you better be very knowledgeable about calculus before you try it.
And yet anti-vaxxers can’t be bothered to do a little reading on the subject they try to pretend they understand. They insist on solving a calculus problem with arithmetic and when it doesn’t work or make things worse, they blame the evil calculus lobby for undermining their efforts in the name of profit. Worse yet anti-vaxxers deny that they’re the primary cause behind a major decline in vaccinations and the resurgence of measles and mumps. “Oh, we don’t say that kids shouldn’t be vaccinated,” they shrug, “don’t look at us.” No, of course they don’t. They just say that if you vaccinate your kids, evil pharmaceutical companies will inject them with toxins that cause autism and that vaccinations should be a personal choice. I wonder how anyone wouldn’t rush to get their kids vaccinated after that, even though the diseases being suppressed by the aggressive regiment of vaccines are not extinct and are just waiting for a chance to come back should herd immunity drop. This is exactly what happened in the UK and exactly what can and will happen in the U.S. when a cover of Playboy becomes more important than a medical degree in a scientific debate over a developmental condition.