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Why Risk of Autism is Such a Strong Driver for Anti-Vaxxer Movement

June 22, 2019 9 comments

As regular readers know, I have written posts about why the modern anti-vaccination movement exists in the first place. It seems that most people, especially those indulge in gratuitous virtue display on social-media, want to attribute it all to parental ignorance, gullibility or stupidity. These dummies are intent on doing so even though the socio-economic and educational profile of those involved in the movement clearly suggests that is not the case. As I mentioned in my previous posts, the anti-vaccination movement is one outcome of a medical system driven by profits.. and let us not pretend that physicians are altruistic people solely driven by a burning need to help others. Also, let us stop pretending that the medical profession still retains the kind of public trust it used to enjoy 2-4 decades ago. It doesn’t and for good reason.

A few months ago, I started writing a short series on why persecution of anti-vaxxers will backfire on believers of scientism. While I intend to, hopefully soon, write more parts for that series- I am going to digress a bit in this post and talk about the twin concerns which seem to be driving the modern anti-vaccination movement. Ana as you will soon see, there is a specific reason behind my decision to not roll this post into the second part of that series. A couple of days ago, I came across a long-form journalism piece in Jezebel (of all places) about the anti-vaxxer movement. In that piece, and in responses to it on social media sites, I noticed a pattern which many (including the author of that piece) were unable or unwilling to notice. To make a long story short, many hip and trendy virtue posers seems to be oblivious to why the risk of autism and auto-immune illnesses is such a potent driver behind the anti-vaxxer movement- especially in USA.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that vaccines causes autism. What I am talking about is much more nuanced and it is recommended that you read the post completely before commenting. So let us begin by talking about Autism or more precisely the history of that diagnosis. In previous eras, children and adults who display symptoms or behavior which are today considered to be part of Autism Spectrum Disorder were considered as “retarded”, “special”,”different,”feeble-minded”, “quirky” etc depending on the nature and degree of their condition. For almost all of human history, such kids and adults were generally treated with varying degrees of compassion and patience. It also helped that prior to age of capitalism, extended social safety nets were able to accommodate and take care of such people. Large-scale institutionalization of such people began only after the mid-1800s and even then only in the allegedly civilized “west”.

My point is that, for almost all of human history, people with what we today lump under the label of autism were not seen as ill or suffering from a disease. They were merely seen as a bit to somewhat different from normal people. I cannot resist the irony of pointing out that people from previous eras actually had a far more humane outlook towards people with such conditions. So how did the label of ASD and rapid increase in its reported incidence come about? Well.. after 1960s, it became basically impossible in the west to institutionalize people with mental conditions or psychiatric diseases. However, unlike serious depression or schizophrenia etc, what we today classify under rubric of ASD wasn’t an illnesses in the traditional sense of that word. To put it another way, there is no consistent neuro-chemical or neuro-anatomical abnormality in everyone (or most people) diagnosed with ASD. Also, you cannot treat it with drugs- at least consistently.

So why does any of this matter? Well.. see, once you classify something as a disease, it has to have a cause. In other words, people started trying to find the cause of what we today know as ASD only after it was reclassified as a disease. It certainly did not help that ASD covers a range of conditions from borderline aspyness to full-blown inability to learn and interact with people. To make another long story short, we still have not been able to develop a robust hypothesis for why some people end up being diagnosed with ASD. While there is is clearly a hereditary competent to these conditions, only 15-20 % of the siblings (at most) of such people also display signs of ASD. In other words, even your hair or eye color exhibits far greater levels of inheritability than ASD. The subtext here is that ASD appears to more developmental than inherited.

Let us now talk about the incidence of diagnosed ASD in the west, specifically USA. According to the CDC, 1 in 59 kids end up being diagnosed with ASD. We can easily round up that number to 1 in 50 or 2%. To make matters worse, about 14% of kids have special educational requirements with almost a third of that being due to learning disabilities. Which is a nice way of saying that about 5% or 1 in 20 kids have learning disabilities severe enough to require intervention and special attention. Did I mention that most people who have children nowadays have only one or two. Are you now starting to see why people are so concerned about anything which might raise the risk of their getting ASD? But it gets worse, much worse, in USA.

Unlike all other developed countries with some form of universal healthcare and long-term illness/ disability support system- USA has nothing even remotely approaching universal healthcare let lone a social safety net for chronically ill or disabled people. To make yet another long (and sordid) story short, the considerable and artificially inflated expenses of caring for a child with moderate to severe ASD can ruin even solidly middle-class families. It is therefore not surprising that parents in USA (and other “western” countries with mediocre profit-driven healthcare systems) are especially vigilant about anything which might potentially increase their child’s risk of developing ASD. It does not help that the rapid increase in ASD coincided with the expansion of childhood vaccination schedule to Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Chickenpox etc.

It also does not help that usually transient neurological disorders are known to be associated with whole-cell pertussis vaccine. Are you beginning to understand why the anti-vaxxer movement has kept gaining strength, especially in USA? But.. but.. some of you might say “what about the common good” or “maintaining herd immunity”? My answer is as follows: you cannot expect people to care about the greater good of a society which, in turn, ignores (or worse, monetizes) the suffering of disabled or chronically-ill people. Does society in USA make sure that caring for a child with ASD does not pauperize his or her parents? If it doesn’t, don’t expect the affected parents or others around them to play ball. Pretending that their concerns are not genuine or they are stupid is also not likely to get them on your side.

One more thing, pretending that measles or chickenpox are life-threatening in otherwise healthy and incompetent children is not a smart idea and likely to reduce your credibility even further. While both illnesses can put a very small percentage of affected children in the hospital, death or permanent disability from either disease is pretty rare- easily less than 1 in 500 and usually far lower. More importantly, a lot of anti-vaxxer parents (especially in USA) would rather take their chances with a 1 in 500 to 1 in 4000 chance of death than feel guilty about their child developing Autism or learning disorders (2-5%) around the same time as being vaccinated. This is doubly so if they know anybody with a child who first started showing signs of ASD around the same time they were being vaccinated.

Yes.. I know that the first signs of ASD often appear at about the same time as kids getting their routine vaccinations- even if they are not getting vaccinated. But I am not a parent, nor have I been ever at risk of becoming bankrupt caring for a child with ASD. If you ever want to reach these people, you will have to start understanding that their risk assessments are as rational as your own. Bullying, mocking or patronizing them is just going to ensure that some greedy charlatans are going to take advantage of their vulnerability. Then again, most ardent pro-vaxxers are just in it for the virtue display and feeling superior. Here is a novel idea.. make sure that everyone has comprehensive universal healthcare and people with disabilities and chronic illness are well cared for and not exploited for financial gains.

What do you think? Comments?