If You Know Anything About Autism, You’ve Heard About Andrew Wakefield
In an earlier post today, I wrote about why the topic of autism and vaccines is not going to go away. I wrote about why, despite more and more scientific evidence that disputes any link between vaccines or something in vaccines and autism, people still entertain such an idea. One such person who continues to promote this discredited theory is David Kirby, the author of a 2005 book, Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, and also of numerous articles claiming a link between vaccines or something in vaccines or something in the environment and autism.
In a February 11th Huffington Post piece, Kirby writes as if the 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that set off a global public health scare about vaccines had never been retracted by the journal that originally published it, the Lancet. He also makes a very puzzling statement about Wakefield’s study, a statement that has the potential to discredit all that he has written about this topic.
Saying that he has spoken to ‘young parents in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn lately about vaccines and autism,’ Kirby then says, in noting that many of these parents are still suspicious of a link between vaccines and autism:
Not very many had heard of Wakefield until recently.
Kirby makes this surprising point while emphasizing how informed and educated these young parents are. They are people, he writes, who ‘actually keep up with the science, including a new review of autism studies in the Journal of Immunotoxicology.’ In addition, these parents all know (says Kirby) someone whose child ‘had an adverse vaccine reaction, got sick, stopped talking and never recovered.’
Kirby does not, though, say that these parents know someone whose child is on the autism spectrum. He is writing about children who had ‘adverse vaccine reactions’—and having such a reaction is not the same as being autistic.
Perhaps many parents have not actually read the actual text of Wakefield’s retracted and discredited 1998 Lancet study. But since that study came out over a decade ago, it has been impossible not to hear about it and about Wakefield in any discussion about the causes of autism.
My husband, Jim Fisher, and I were living in St. Paul, Minnesota, when it became apparent that our toddler son, Charlie, had ‘something.’ That was in the winter and spring of 1999; Charlie was formally diagnosed with autism in July of 1999. Since we had an inkling that ‘something was not right’ with Charlie, we had begun to scout libraries, bookstores, and the Internet. Indeed, finding out about ‘autism’ was the reason that Jim and I started to use the Internet extensively.
Already in 1999, we found all kinds of webpages about treatments, ‘cures,’ and, yes, causes of autism. The topic of vaccines kept coming up: What? Jim and I thought. What do vaccines have to do with autism? Charlie had had all of his vaccinations; he had never had any reaction. None of his symptoms of autism—his not developing speech or communication skills, his repetitive play, his tantrums that seemed excessive even for a child in the ‘terrible two’s’—had appeared ‘overnight,’ but had arisen gradually.
Nonetheless, caught up in the need to figure out what was going on with our little boy, Jim and I read the studies (including Wakefield’s), went to hear speakers who championed Wakefield’s theories, and took Charlie to a couple of practitioners of ‘alternative’ medicine and, yes, tried some biomedical treatments. More than a few of our friends with autistic children were staunch proponents of alternative treatments for autism and of the vaccine-autism theory, and remain so to this day.
And everyone knew about Wakefield. I recall an autism mother support group meeting in Minneapolis where some of my friends, having recently attending a Defeat Autism Now! conference, spoke in glowing terms about hearing Wakefield; about how they were planning to try various alternative treatments such as chelation, a treatment used for heavy metal poisoning that was used on autistic children due to the now idea that autism is caused by poisoning by mercury or ‘heavy metals.’
Everyone who knew anything about autism then knew about Wakefield. And, like it or not, everyone who knows anything about autism today has heard about Wakefield and, for the past year, about the debunking of his theory.
Kirby’s statement in the February 11th Huffington Post that ‘Not very many’ of these parents ‘had heard of Wakefield until recently’ is, again, very puzzling, and undermines all that he says about autism. If the parents whom Kirby has been talking with do not know who Andrew Wakefield is, they very likely know little about autism and the past decade of controversy about the causes of autism.
It is high time that Kirby let go of his obsessive focus on discredited theories of autism causation. If he would like to support individuals on the autism spectrum and those who care for them, I exhort him to learn about life as an autistic person, and life raising an autistic child—to take the time to learn about autism.
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Photo by stevendepolo.