Unfortunately, many writers for news agencies often want to tell stories rather than respect whatever science is involved and the result is a very misleading human interest piece, much like a recent article about Jenny McCarthy published by Time. Sure, it pays some lip service to the concerns medical professionals have with her campaign against vaccines and in favor of unscrupulous doctors lining their pockets with unproven cures for autism, but the infrequent mentions of the scientific red flags are muted as not to get in the way of the kind of warrior mom narrative chosen for McCarthy by her handlers at Generation Rescue. That’s right media types, just turn the other way, say nice things about us, let us tell parents to turn their kids to become guinea pigs for quacks, and we won’t have to demonize you as sleazy, baby-eating monsters or try to sue you into silence.
The biggest problem with the Time feature is that instead of the facts of the matter, readers are treated to Karl Greenfled’s fawning and disappointingly cavalier treatment of a very serious ethical issue in medicine. Having a child diagnosed with a condition that’s poorly explained and understood is terrifying. Parents want a solution and treatment plans, but the problem in the case of an autism diagnosis is that responsible doctors need to rely on clinical testing and their work is tightly regulated by a number of laws and institutional standards. They can’t promise magical cures or offer to try untested, experimental regimens based on highly speculative, often very limited studies without having a good idea that this will actually help the child. Add on top of that the highly speculative nature of an autism diagnosis and it’s potential genetic links, and you’re dealing with a complex set of cases where unnecessary experimentation could do far more harm than good.
But now, the quacks have gone marching in. Not restrained by the policies by which most doctors must abide, they can give worried and desperate parents a scapegoat in the form of vaccines, and promise cures based on a hefty dollop of creative license in interpreting the results of speculative studies and alt med notions. How could parents resist a solution being dangled in front of them, especially when their primary doctors offered a wait and see attitude, even doubting that little Johnny or Sally might have autism? Selective hearing goes wild and the parents begin viewing mainstream medicine as a hurdle to progress, not realizing that doctors aren’t in a rush to subject their kids to countless pills, diets, and a barrage of expensive treatments not because they don’t care or they want to be cruel to the parents, but because they have no evidence to believe it will help. The quacks, on the other hand, will try and bill for anything and everything. Having sunk thousands of dollars and a whole lot of heartache into all sorts of biomed woo, the parents want to see any improvement, no matter how small, as the result of all those novel cures rather than natural improvement or a misdiagnosis.
Organizations like Generation Rescue make things even worse by doing all they can to reinforce these views and trying their damnest to make vaccines out to be the cause of every imaginable pediatric evil, from blaming a whole host of random chemicals in them as the trigger for autism, to claiming that children are subjected to far too many vaccinations even though kids receive only 5% of the antigens they would’ve gotten just 30 years ago. Not only that, but they will dismiss any study showing that vaccines are safe and effective as a paid for piece of propaganda by Big Pharma, demanding a custom made vaccinated vs. unvaccinated trial without which they claim all the benefits of vaccinations are just a tenet of faith. Even if someone actually does such a cruel and unethical study and confirms that vaccines really are beneficial, they’ll find a way to reject it. One of a myriad of the hacks they employ will find that the uncle of a cousin of a friend of one of the nurses who worked with the study group was a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, or something like that, and dismiss the entire effort out of hand as more propaganda from vaccine makers, manipulated by their secret agents. But of course doing such a study would be ethically reprehensible and very problematic to carry out in the first place.
First of all, the control group will be exposed to illnesses which used to kill thousands of children on a regular basis without the benefit of having antibodies to fight them off. There really shouldn’t be a long explanation as to why this is incredibly irresponsible and would fail any ethics review by those who would fund this study. The other issue would be the herd immunity built up by the prevalence of vaccinations in most communities in the developed world. The 80% to 90% of vaccinated children would help those who aren’t vaccinated from having the chance to catch some diseases. However, when that level of vaccination falls, cases of measles, rubella, and other preventable childhood diseases reemerge, showing right then and there that vaccination works and works quite well. Anti-vaxers have been doing these sorts of experiments in the UK, US and Australia, causing public health emergencies in the process, certain that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits despite the sharp drop in vaccinations often corresponding to a sharp rise in childhood diseases.
So why would anti-vaxers even suggest doing these kinds of ethically questionable and dangerous studies to prove a point at the expense of their kids’ health? Because they’re absolutely sure that the only good study is a study that confirms their personal opinions and any research that fails to do so must be wrong. This is why all the calls for a vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study on the blogs of anti-vax luminaries declare that a proper study will confirm the fervent beliefs about vaccines. In other words, instead of following the evidence, they refuse to even consider any scientific work that doesn’t agree with their convictions, and continue to send children who were diagnosed with autism to quacks who torture them with unnecessary, dangerous and expensive cures and pseudoscientific treatments. And when reporters write fawning and teary-eyed articles about their pretty and famous spokespeople and the hope of worried parents that something will magically cure their kids, this dark side of the anti-vax movement is hidden from the world exactly when it needs to be exposed.
[ illustration by Denis Zilber ]