My wife and I first noticed our friends’ preoccupation with autism and vaccines in late 2007, right around the time former TV star and Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy published the first of several bestsellers in which she claimed that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine had probably given her son autism. As we soon discovered, McCarthy’s intuition-based approach to medicine (she referred to it as “mommy instinct”) had a number of adherents among our friends.
One night at a dinner party in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood famed for its degree-laden denizens and their obsessive approach to parenting, I asked a first-time father why he and his wife had decided to delay giving their son some of his shots. “I don’t know what to say,” he said. “It just feels like a lot for a developing immune system to deal with.”
At the time, I had no idea whether his fears were justified, but I was taken aback by the fact that he was basing his decision on emotions and not facts. Today, after more than two years of research, I have to agree with a federal judge, who wrote in a 2009 decision that when it comes to autism and vaccines, the evidence is “so one-sided” in support of there not being a causal connection between the two that it is “not a close case.”
Yet the vaccine rate has continued to plummet in progressive enclaves similar to my own, where residents show their disdain for the anti-science beliefs of creationists by putting “Darwin fish” bumper stickers on their hybrid cars. Take Ashland, Ore., the home to a nationally renowned Shakespeare festival: its vaccine exemption rate is the highest in the country. Marin County, just north of San Francisco, is another example: it has the nation’s fifth-highest average per capita income—and an exemption rate more than three times the rest of the state.
The roots of this phobia extend back to 1998, when a British doctor claimed to have discovered a possible link (since debunked) between the MMR vaccine and autism. The following year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave more cause for concern when it recommended that pharmaceutical companies remove a mercury-based preservative from routine childhood vaccinations. From there, public fears took on a life of their own.
Like other persistent untruths—the belief that Obama is a Muslim, say—the endurance of these vaccine scares is due to multiple, interconnected causes. The Internet, where no view is too outrageous to masquerade as fact, has played a role, as has the media’s habit of giving every story “two sides” long after one has been discredited. There’s also politicians’ instinct to pander to their most vocal and strident constituents, and public officials’ ineptitude at communicating with the public.
But whatever the cause, the result has been as tragic as it is predictable. In recent years measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin have cost tens of millions of dollars to contain. In 2009 six unvaccinated children in southeastern Pennsylvania were infected with Haemophilus influenzae type b, or Hib, a disease that was all but wiped out in America 20 years ago. Two of them died. In 2009 in California, there were more cases of pertussis (a.k.a. whooping cough) than in any year since 1947, before its vaccine was in widespread use. Ten children in the state died after being infected. Nine of them were younger than 6 months old.
A little more than a year ago, my wife gave birth to our first child. As I know all too well, the fact that he’s fully up to date on his shots offers no guarantees: no vaccine is 100 percent effective. That’s especially obvious today, when low vaccination rates threaten the immunity of whole communities. If only there were a shot for irrational fears.
Mnookin is the author of The Panic Virus, from which this essay is adapted.