Stop buying pseudoscience garbage—vaccines don’t cause autism

It’s been more than a dozen years since I first heard the myth that autism is caused by vaccines. I was a daily newspaper reporter with several years’ experience under my belt when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. imparted that narrative during a speech at Chico State.

He was on a tour for his then-new book, Crimes Against Nature, and delivered a wide-ranging talk. Much of it focused on the environmental degradation being committed by the administration of George W. Bush. This was 2006.

Other subjects included faulty voting machines; the political and corporate machinations that polarize the country; and a much-needed return of the Fairness Doctrine, a defunct Federal Communications Commission policy requiring TV and radio broadcasters to provide balanced reporting on controversial issues of public importance.

Somewhere in there, Kennedy dropped the bombshell about vaccines and autism. I don’t remember his spiel in great detail, but I do recall him alleging it had something to do with mercury. When I returned to my office to bust out a story for the next day’s paper, I decided to exclude those comments.

My editor, who had a relative with autism and attended the talk, asked me about the omission. I said I’d covered the most interesting discussion points. Moreover, I couldn’t find what I considered legitimate sources backing up the claim.

Years later, I delved into this dangerous myth and its origins, including the theory that it was connected to a mercury-based preservative in vaccines. The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other health agencies, conducted research and found no such link. Still, as a precaution, the additive was either greatly reduced or entirely removed from vaccines recommended for infants and young children in the early aughts.

I also learned that in 1998, eight years before Kennedy’s talk in Chico, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published research charging a causal relationship between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. That was proven false as well.

What was Wakefield’s motive? In 2004, a newspaper reporter’s investigation revealed his bias and major financial conflicts of interest. For starters, some of the children in his study had been recruited by attorneys attempting to sue MMR manufacturers. Furthermore, Wakefield had been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by the lawyers. Additionally, prior to his study, he’d filed for a patent for an alternative measles vaccine.

In 2010, after an investigation by the U.K.’s General Medical Council discredited his research, Wakefield lost his ability to practice medicine there. The journal that had published the study retracted it. Still, in spite of a mountain of evidence debunking his work, it’s a veritable Pandora’s box.

The result of the misinformation and the parroting by prominent people like Kennedy: a dangerous resurgence of measles, a virus all but eradicated almost 20 years ago, that triggered a public health emergency in New York City just this week. It’s also active in Butte County (see Healthlines, page 12).

As for Wakefield, the disgraced former physician has found the United States a great place for bearing false witness—in Texas, unsurprisingly—and has made it his home base for spreading anti-vaxx propaganda to pseudoscience groups and nervous parents.