The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is reporting that 2013 is on track to have the highest number of measles cases in 17 years. This is frustrating considering that the disease itself was thought to be eradicated in the U.S. in the year 2000. Health officials are attributing this new outbreak to parents who are refusing to vaccinate their children due to a scientifically unfounded fear that the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine leads to autism.
The threat of autism is scary for a parent, especially now that an estimated one in 50 children have autism spectrum disorder. So it is understandable that parents are demanding to know what causes this neurological disorder.
What is not understandable is the fact that people like Jenny McCarthy, a leading anti-vaccination activist, are spreading lies and inflicting fear in parents by repeating pseudoscientific claims about vaccines. Here are five reasons why the scientifically illiterate had the power to bring back measles from extinction in the U.S.
1. Parents are vulnerable.
Non-experts like Jenny McCarthy are dangerous because parents have an insatiable need for answers when it comes to the health of their children. McCarthy takes advantage of parents’ fears by offering them a deceivingly clean-cut solution to the scary threat of autism. And not only that, she is unabashedly making money off of it and benefiting from the controversy that ensues. Parents have enough difficult decisions to make about their children. When the CDC fully endorses the MMR vaccine as safe and effective, this should not be one of them.
2. It's hard to identify the scientific experts.
Science is hard. It’s safe to say that most parents are not professionally trained as medical doctors or scientific researchers. Because of this, it’s hard for them (and the rest of the public for that matter) to decipher the information that they are constantly bombarded with from both scientific and non-scientific sources.
This allows famous people with no medical backgrounds to be influential on medical topics. Jenny McCarthy, for example, may be perceived as credible because she has a son with autism and his pediatrician stands beside her in her anti-vaccination cause. This doctor, however, has been highly criticized by other medical professionals for his anti-vaccination support. While McCarthy is in a position to offer parenting advice on how to raise an autistic child, she has no business offering medical advice to parents deciding on the future health of their children.
3. Scientists are not always objective.
Unfortunately, even scientific experts can be dishonest and misrepresent scientific information. This is exactly what happened in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield (formally known as Dr. Andrew Wakefield) and colleagues published a study on the link between autism and the MMR vaccine in The Lancet. This study followed 12 children who had a history of normal development followed by mental regressions. The study concluded that the MMR vaccine was the cause of the mental regression and a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was suggested. This study provided fuel to the anti-vaccination crusaders and propelled them forward for years to come.
However, this controversial study was investigated 10 years later and Wakefield was criticized for falsifying data in the study, violating basic research ethics rules, and showing a “callous disregard” for the suffering children involved in his research. It was also discovered that a portion of Wakefield’s research was paid for by lawyers of parents seeking to sue vaccine makers for damages. Based on these findings, the Lancet retracted the article and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license.
Unfortunately, the damage had already been done.
4. Correlation does not imply causation, but it can be confusing.
McCarthy asserts that the rate of autism has grown rapidly as the number of vaccines children receive has increased. However, it turns out that organic food sales have also increased during this period of time. Does that mean that Whole Foods and other organic companies are other major causes of autism? No, of course not.
It is incredibly important for the public to understand that correlation between two variables does not imply that one causes the other. In fact, many published studies, including millions of children in several countries, have repeatedly concluded that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism development.
5. People would rather have a wrong answer than no answer at all.
Uncertainty makes people uncomfortable and sometimes creates tensions that lead individuals to make bad decisions. A cause for autism has yet to be found, which leaves parents feeling helpless with no control over the neurological health of their child. This uncertainty offers anti-vaccination advocates an opportunity to take advantage of parents by giving them a false sense of control.
While we do not know what causes autism, studies have concluded that it is not caused by the MMR vaccine. Anti-vaccination spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy are being incredibly irresponsible by giving medical advice based on pseudoscience to vulnerable parents. Their actions have contributed to the increasing number of unnecessary deaths of children who contracted a disease that was thought eradicated only 13 years ago. It is the medical equivalent of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, when there’s no fire — and it’s the children who are getting trampled.