Turning to science

Evidence debunks the vaccine-autism link and supports vaccine safety

I don’t like the idea of forcing people to vaccinate their children. I’m referring to Senate Bill 277, which is winding its way through the state Legislature. Contributor Allan Stellar writes in this week’s cover story about that bill and the anti-vax movement that spurred Democratic Sen. Richard Pan—a longtime pediatrician—to co-author it to protect the lives of children.

The bill, in its current incarnation, aims to repeal an exemption that allows parents to opt their school-age children out. Right now, any parent can file a “personal belief exemption” by getting the signature of a doctor—an actual physician (with a medical degree)—verifying a conversation took place about the risks and benefits of immunization. Then, their children can go to school with kids whose parents chose vaccination.

I don’t like that, either. And I was stunned to read the statistics on the local vaccination rates. I have a preschooler and he’s in a setting with a lot of un- or undervaccinated children every day. It makes me nervous because Henry’s a medically fragile kid. Immunizations aren’t 100 percent effective. I know this first-hand. My son was vaccinated for the flu and ended up getting it, anyway, two winters ago. He had a rough go. It was frightening.

The thought of him contracting measles is even scarier. We’re lucky California’s recent outbreak didn’t make it to Butte County. But what about next time? I doubt this will be an isolated incident. Then there’s pertussis—whooping cough—another frightening and potentially deadly respiratory illness that is back, even locally. Earlier this month, an anti-vaxxer mom from Canada opened up to reporters about her regrettable decision to not fully vaccinate her children—all seven kids were struck with the disease.

I, too, was leery of immunization when considering it for the first time a few years ago. My pediatrician, who’s from Kenya and has seen children fall ill and die from vaccine-preventable diseases, helped to ease my fears about the remote chances of a serious reaction. And I did my own research. I looked into this because I had a vague recollection of hearing that vaccines had been tied to autism. I actually heard this theory while covering Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s appearance in Chico a decade ago. Kennedy argued that a preservative containing mercury was the cause. That preservative, thimerosal, was largely phased out of vaccines four years prior to Kennedy’s visit (it’s still in certain flu vaccines and in trace amounts in two other vaccines). Yet autism rates have continued to rise, and Kennedy is sticking to his story.

But what I really turn to on this issue is the science. Fact is, there is no evidence linking vaccines and autism. The doctor who first made the connection back in the late 1990s—specifically, that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) was the culprit—had his license yanked after an investigation found he’d falsified research. Moreover, numerous peer-reviewed studies have debunked his theory, as well as newer ones that have flourished over the years. This includes those tying the neurological disorder to the administration of multiple vaccines on the same date or too many within the first couple years of life. In fact, a study released just last week found no connection between MMR and autism—a lingering conspiracy theory.

To me, the anti-vax movement is on the same level as the climate-change-denial movement. Both are anti-science. Both are dangerous. And while I’m torn on SB 277, I think it’s way too easy to get an exemption. The science is there. Let’s learn from it.

Melissa Daugherty is editor of the CN&R