When my wife, Jessica, was pregnant with our twins, I wanted to learn why many whom I respected were against vaccination.
I’m not a medical professional, but I am a scientist and know how to do research. I found a landscape of blogs and essays quoting other blogs and essays. Of 450 arguments against vaccination, I found less than 20 citing primary sources (Note: I did not consider Jenny McCarthy a primary source).
It took quite a while because I doggedly tracked down every supposed citation. That led me down a rabbit warren where almost every argument stemmed from Andrew Wakefield’s original (now debunked) papers in The Lancet. There were also a few sources having nothing to do with autism, such as a news article linking vaccines to joint pain and one supposedly linking vaccination and seizures.
For this reason, I applaud the (Feb. 9) Another Voice by Brian Barrett, RN. I thank him for arguing the cause of vaccination and noting the reduction in herd immunity and the danger of recent measles outbreaks. I also found that the dominant narrative for blaming autism on vaccination was the need to find an understandable reason for, as Brian put it, “one’s child’s neurological demise.” It seemed people needed something or someone to blame for their child’s autism and this seemed like both and emotionally and intellectually lazy path for me to take.
That is why I accept Brian’s invitation to “(civilly) debate…in public.”
Just as I am frustrated by people blaming autism on vaccinations, I am equally frustrated by Brian blaming it on parents. Brian uses an unrelated medical reference to bolster his argument in the same way as those he condemns. His troubling statement is, “We have actual scientific evidence of what pediatricians have suspected … for decades. That exposure to audio-video stimulation … during infancy may cause irreversible brain damage … including attention and communication disorders …This includes autism” (emphasis mine). As his only primary source for this statement, he states, “This evidence comes to us from Dr. Dimitri Christiakis (sic).”
I felt a jolt when I read that name, because Dimitri Christakis is co-author on a paper titled “Febrile Seizures Following Immunization.” That paper is one of the sources people have (inexplicably) used to justify an anti-vaccination argument — despite the paper being both unrelated to autism and having contrary findings. Spurred by this familiarity, I decided to again do some research.
I found no discussion of autism in Christakis’ research. His papers are focused on ADHD which, despite Brian’s assertion, does not include autism. In fact, the only direct references to autism I found in Christakis’ work is by analogy, such as in his essay “Rethinking Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder” where he states, “… Much as we have moved from a diagnosis of ‘autism’ to ‘autism spectrum disorder,’ we should move from a diagnosis of ADHD to one of attention-deficit/hyperactivity spectrum disorder” (JAMA Pediatrics, Jan. 4, 2016). He also writes in a series of editorial letters in JAMA debating use of the phrase “acquired physician autism,” a metaphor that was used somewhat inappropriately.
But let us assume a single study did suggest a link between screen-time and autism, thereby suggesting parents blame themselves, as Brian recommends. It would be at best destructive to use that single study anyway. Such an argument would demand an overwhelming amount of research, not simply one study, because the suggestion is so very damaging.
I have family members with autism and have seen self-blame cause emotional trauma that extended across three generations. Luckily for parents, it would be difficult at best to find a correlation (let alone causality) between autism to infant screen time. Autism affects 1/166 people and we have no studies showing a coincident ratio of screen time. Autism affects boys at four times the rate of girls and we have no studies showing boys have four times more screen time during infancy. Most constructive for parents, we do have “actual scientific evidence” that autism begins to present itself in the womb — see, for instance, “Patches of Disorganization in the Neocortex of Children with Autism,” Stoner, et. al., (New England Journal of Medicine, 2014). Are pregnant mothers who binge-watch Netflix to blame?
As humans, we seek meaning. In our search for meaning, cause and blame can provide us comfort. Blaming vaccination gives Jenny McCarthy a reason for autism; similarly, blaming parents gives Brian a reason for autism. Either way, it is effectively a false religion of meaning. The sad reality is that autism is, at least in part, as Stoner, et. al. state in their opening line, an “inheritable developmental disorder.” Parents are no more to blame for autism than they are to blame for a daughter with a digestive tract malfunction or a son with a malformed skull. Sometimes we simply don’t have control over genetics, as much as we want to find meaning and blame.
In the end, I vaccinated my children, and support vaccination. I found the science overwhelming and the arguments against it both lazy and spurious. I also support Brian writing an essay and trying to reverse a troubling trend of decreasing vaccination rates.
But I am very sad he felt the need to fabricate a link to screen-time as justification. Blaming parents for autism and hinting at their narcissism is both lazy and destructive. Creating a false link between screen-time and autism devalues his argument, especially since a major part of his argument is that it is wrong to rely on a false link between vaccination and autism. In doing so he actually bolsters the case for anti-vaccination, because he uses the same illogical reasoning that got us here in the first place.
John Metta lives in Hood River.