Autism and the Anti-Vaxx Cult

The anti-vaccine movement very seldom comes to the clinics where I work.  We serve mostly Medicaid and uninsured patients, and parents here know that a kid coming down with chicken pox would mean a parent missing up to two weeks of work.  Skipping the Varicella vaccine could be a financial disaster.  In addition, our state laws requiring vaccination to attend school or daycare are the strictest in the country which is why in a state that seems to be last in so many health care measures, we have a 99.7% vaccination rate for kindergartners.

Skipping vaccines is a luxury.  Discussions of possible complications and disruption of herd immunity may not persuade people to vaccinate their children, but if they know that a round of whooping cough means they may not be able to pay rent, a trip to the pediatrician or health department makes economic sense.

It is no accident that the anti-vaxx movement comes out of more affluent communities. Not everyone has time to join in the “crunchy mom” movement characterized by cloth diapers and suspicion of foreign chemicals, the government, and the medical establishment.

Where does this movement come from? These fears are not without merit, after all.  The ingredient list in a vaccine is full of hard to pronounce foreign sounding compounds, and if history teaches us anything, we are right to be suspicious of unknown side effects.  Thalidimide, for example, never got through the United States FDA, but it was used widely during pregnancy by European women who then gave birth to children with serious limb deformities.

On-line and neighborhood communities have sprung up for “crunchy moms” who reinforced each other’s fears and convictions.  Those who express doubt or change their minds about vaccines are ostracized, which is one of the criteria for being a cult.

While I do feel some suspicion of the establishment is justified, the evidence for the safety and efficacy of vaccines is overwhelming.  I would argue that vaccination is the most well-researched, well-practiced, and well-tracked medical breakthrough of our time.   The evidence is in.  But apparently it isn’t reaching everyone. Refusal to vaccinate your child is cultish behavior.  And it’s hard to leave a cult that tells you vaccination may cause your child to be autistic.

Fear of autism is a main characteristic of the anti-vaxx movement.  Now debunked research pointed to preservatives in the MMR vaccine as the culprit.  But was this really so hard to believe? Diagnoses of autism are on the rise with as many as 1 out of 150 children now being diagnosed by age 8.   Surely this is caused by something, right?  When first categorized, cold uninvolved mothering was blamed for autism in children, as if just not loving your child enough caused the neurological disorder.  As this explanation fell out of favor, parents struggled to find alternate reasons for the prevalence of autism.

A brief look at the history of Autism as a diagnosable disorder, however, points to a much simpler explanation than the preservative thirmosol or other suspected culprits including GMOs, plastics, and chemtrails. I think this is an important piece of the puzzle that is often ignored.  Autism Spectrum Disorder has only been in the DSMIII since 1980, and it has been revised multiple times since then. The majority of children today classified as being “on the spectrum” would never have met the criteria in the 1980 DSM. And prior to that, most children with severe forms of autism were simply thought to be schizophrenic.

Whether or not this knowledge would be convincing to anti-vaxx parents is questionable.  In fact, studies show that presenting parents with scientific evidence about vaccination does little to nothing to change their views on the risk factors their children face.  What does seem to change their minds is actual outbreaks.  This is horrifying because an unknown number of children, even vaccinated children, may contract measles before this phenomenon passes into obscurity.