I saw your comment on facebook. My heart broke when I read it. You love your child so much, and yet you cannot look at the autism without questioning your decision to vaccinate. I feel for you. The way you’re feeling is entirely understandable. And yet at the same time, I’m writing to you to provide a wider context because I believe it will help you to better understand your decision and the consequences. As you read this you may feel you’re getting an indication of where I’m going with all of this. But many were surprised to find where I ended up, so I do hope you’ll take the whole journey with me.
Science is based on skepticism, so unlike many people I’m very open to the challenges put forth to any scientific idea. That’s how we’ve always moved forward with our knowledge and it is often the people who are considered quacks and idiots who are the people who were far enough outside of conventional thinking to actually be able to see something obvious that others missed. If you haven’t heard of him, Dr. Barry Marshall was thrown out of medical conferences for being a quack and yet today if you go into the doctor with an ulcer you’ll get Dr. Marshall’s treatment. So we have to keep an open mind to the minority because they’re more likely to find something revolutionary. Dr. Marshall was a case of people not giving credit to an idea without even testing it. They dismissed it without studying it and that was the failure in their science. As I said, good science is vigilant skepticism working hand in hand with creativity.
My profound concern regarding your feelings are that you have missed a critical detail in your calculations of responsibility. It took Dr. Marshall a long time to convince the world he was right. So you understand that at the time—despite the fact that better information existed—every ulcer patient did what their good doctor told them to and so they engaged in ultimately useless treatments when they could have been having Dr. Marshall’s. But they never knew about Dr. Marshall’s findings because no one had bothered to verify if they were true. So someone feeling bad because they didn’t use a treatment they didn’t even know about is like someone feeling bad because they didn’t pick the winner of the Best Picture Oscar a day early. Yeah, everyone knows the who won the next day, and those accountants they always introduce knew before that, just like Dr. Marshall. But you accept that you can’t know who won the Oscars before they open the envelop, and so you don’t feel guilty for not knowing.
In your case you wish you had known about the study that suggested there was a link between autism and vaccines. The key difference I want to address is that your situation is completely different than the one with Dr. Marshall. Because the Autism-MMR study was done by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, and he is nothing like Dr. Marshall. Dr. Marshall had done good science and was provably correct. In Dr. Wakefield’s case, his results couldn’t be repeated in quality studies anywhere in the world. Eventually the heat turned up and Dr. Wakefield was forced to admit that a combination of his own ego, and his financial investment in a medical test that would only be profitable if vaccines weren’t used, lead him to completely fabricate his results and his conclusions.
He’s been forced to be quite public about it because his admission was thought to have finally settled the challenge that better science had made. In the end he still seems to more embarrassed than ashamed, and he only came forward when reporters couldn’t find any trace of the children that had supposedly been in his study. Knowing he had been exposed he quickly admitted that he invented children and invented their symptoms and invented their results and yes he knows parents are putting their kids in real danger because of his lie. This was a complete and total lie as stated by the man who did it. So what I want you to do is a little mind game with me—but you can’t pretend to do it, you have to really imagine these things happened.
Imagine that Dr. Wakefield doesn’t tell this lie. Let’s say he chooses a different lie. After all, it was an act of creativity. He could have picked anything. Let us say he said it was a bacteria alive in blue cheese and it was the cause of autism if consumed. Can you see if he had told that lie instead of the one he made up, that you would have absolutely no reason whatsoever to even consider your child’s vaccine as the cause of his autism. Seriously. How could you? There’s a zillion things in this world, why would you pick that one? If no one pointed at it why would you pick it? You could pick a dog bite when he was young. Or the fact that you live near a refinery. Or maybe he ate blue cheese once so maybe that’s it… Can you see you wouldn’t do that? That the only reason that you or anyone else ever looked at vaccines as the cause of autism, is because Dr. Wakefield told you a complete lie, and now, almost 20 years after he lied, here is this loving, wonderful parent feeling guilty about doing something that every appropriately trained medical doctor would have told you to do (well, except for maybe an over-the-top conspiracy theorist).
I’m an interesting age when it comes to this discussion. 4 years younger than me and it looks totally different. Because my little sister came into a school filled with healthy kids. It wasn’t like that for me. For anyone that paid any attention in my grade, you could see that the kids just a few years ahead of us had been ravaged. Deformed kids. Crippled kids. Dead kids. Lots of them. People today use death stats etc. but that’s crazy. My brothers went to school almost two decades before me and when I asked my mother if she was worried that sending them to school might kill them she said “Not so much dying, no. There was only a few that died at the school. I didn’t want their faces all twisted up or them having kidney problems or be all crippled up. Not many died but there was lots of kids who had that kind of thing.”
This wasn’t rare. That’s the whole problem. It was too common. The measles vaccine for instance came out the year I was born. Imagine my mother sending my older brothers to school when kids had been crippled and died, or had encephalitis—which is still why everyone reacts so seriously when there’s a meningitis outbreak. Kids did permanent damage to their organs, and yet for my older brothers there were multiple, known viruses moving through society and absolutely no way to protect yourself. Sending your kid to school could literally ruin their life, and the odds were much much higher of that than the odds of having an allergic reaction and dying from a vaccine—which absolutely can happen. But that’s still 100,000’s of kids compared with about 100. Those numbers are way too far apart for you want to be in the other group, and it’s why the vast majority of people against vaccines are under 55. Because otherwise that’s just super bad math.
I remember so many crippled kids older than me that it was simply a fact of how I saw those classes of older kids. They were the crippled and deformed kids. And you don’t see a lot of them hobbling around today because a lot of them died before 40, so even if they survived a lot of them are long gone already. I got to graduate with the class I started with. My brothers, 15 years older, had a completely different school experience. I still remember seeing all of those strange, deformed legs moving down the hallway with that strange dragging step. And because of how it was passed, it was often multiple kids in one family.
In the case of polio, it’s a shame that even survivors like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell have a far better chance of dying much sooner than they would have had they never had polio. Even the lowly chicken pox (varicella) leads to a very painful herpes zoster condition in one in five people who had it. The mumps can make you sterile and as late as 1980 the measles was still killing as many as 2.5 million people per year worldwide. Plain old undefined influenza still kills almost 5500 people a year in Canada, and many of these conditions are more dangerous to adults than kids. And even if you survived polio, you still paid with years of being crippled as a kid and you’ll often die younger. That’s because the body paid a price because it took some time for Neil Young’s body to figure out what that virus was. It took it years of being crippled to figure that out and then build an immune system response strong enough to fight it. So in Neil’s case his immune system worked its ass off and it won the war and so we have Neil Young songs to listen to. But a lot of kids did the fighting for years but their bodies didn’t respond quickly enough and they died or were permanently crippled.
A vaccine is simply an isolated version of the answer to a virus attack. Every researcher knows what the human body does to fight a virus, so they take the answer from someone who’s already beaten it and they multiply it into doses and give it to you. Most of the worry people have about vaccines is about the fact that the entirely natural piece has to be bound to agents that allow your body to “grab” the answer and use it, but even those agents have been tested like crazy. Because we’re all human the answer to these diseases is the same for all of us. And once it solves it, all your body needs to do is go build its army. So there’s lots of unproven claims about vaccines that don’t stand up to rigorous study, but all a vaccine does is tell your body the answer that it might not have otherwise figured out in time, so that it can start responding faster. It’s exactly what Neil Young’s body did but you get to skip the crippled part.
These diseases aren’t cured by corporations. The researchers have always been and still are largely the children or siblings of people who were affected by that disease. They’re not part of some conspiracy or some thieving money-grabbing scheme. Half the time in the old days they would test the thing on themselves. So could we still find something out 50 years from now that proves vaccines may be dangerous? Yes, we always have to keep our minds open to such a possibility, lest we end up like the people that suppressed Dr. Marshall’s ulcer findings. But we must also use whatever the best information is at this time. And to an overwhelming degree, all of the serious, highest-standard studies done by doctors—with far better morals that Dr. Wakefield’s—have shown the same thing. There is no link between autism and vaccines and you only think that because of Dr. Wakefield’s desire to be rich and famous. Again, if he thought blue cheese would have gotten him all that attention then he would have told you that and then you’d feel guilty about blue cheese.
The fact that you care so much is all the illustration I need to know you are a good parent. And I’m fine if you want to harbour low-percentage ideas in case they might be true—someone has to in case they turn out to be. But right now—today and on the day you got your child vaccinated—on those days there was no question you made the safest possible choice and I can absolutely guarantee you would have the full and total support of any sane, reasonably educated mother who had to watch their kids go through school before, and then after vaccines. There were absolutely zero anti-vaccine mom’s in our school back then because every two minutes another schoolmate would clack past the vaccine line with his metal legs.
Don’t beat yourself up. You already have a tough enough job raising a special needs child. You need to love yourself as much as you love that child. Because you did make a good decision and because Jenny McCarthy is just like you—she’s a parent who feels guilty, so she’s looking for the reason to be anything but her. But it wasn’t either one of you. I’m sympathetic to your terrible situations. But that does not mean there is any way on this Earth that Dr. Wakefield’s magical lie could ever climb out of a needle and into your child. You are a good parent. You really are.
With love and the biggest hug ever, s
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.