By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
WHEN CHRIS ABEL QUIT HER JOB as a registered nurse, she did it for her children. Abel and her husband had chosen to have nine.
As a hobby, in her spare moments during the early 1980s, Abel began tracking infectious disease in Minnesota. She'd call the Minnesota Department of Health and learn as much as she could about each case. As she graphed deaths from infectious disease, she began to notice something odd: Vaccinated babies still got sick.
When her children were young, the Centers for Disease Control recommended only a handful of vaccinations. Abel watched, alarmed, as the load grew, from eight in 1980 to 22 by 2000.
Abel wasn't against vaccinations—as a nurse, she knew that infectious diseases had real risks. But she believed there was value in allowing children to develop immunity on their own, without the aid of vaccines. And when scientific studies began to suggest that vaccines might actually harm children, Abel found more reasons to doubt. She founded a nonprofit, Vaccine Awareness Minnesota, and began hosting parents at her home, showing them her research and explaining that they had a choice.
As Abel was spreading her message, a powerful current began running through the internet and on television talk shows—a wave of parents who believed that vaccines damaged children. Though the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics insisted that vaccines were safe, these parents didn't trust what they heard from the medical establishment.
The concerns over vaccines started back in the 1970s, when a British scientist claimed that the vaccination for pertussis, or whooping cough—given in the three-in-one DPT shot together with the diphtheria and tetanus immunizations—caused neurological damage to children. In the mildest of cases, the vaccine caused incessant screaming or high fevers. At the most severe, it could cause brain damage or even death. When a British documentary on the risks of DPT aired, vaccination rates plummeted.
The trend spread across the Atlantic in the early 1980s, catapulted by the NBC documentary "DPT: Vaccination Roulette," according to Offit, author of Autism's False Prophets, which examines the history of the vaccine controversy. The broadcast portrayed the medical establishment as blindly ignoring the evidence that DPT hurt kids. Parents were outraged, and a grassroots, anti-vaccine parent lobby grew strong.
So, too, did whooping cough epidemics. On both sides of the Atlantic, thousands of children contracted a disease that had been rare since the mid-1970s. In 1986, a special British court convened to assess the evidence against DPT. A judge conducted an exhaustive review, listening to the testimony of parents and medical experts, probing clinical literature, animal experiments, epidemiology, and biochemistry. In 1988, the judge determined that DPT caused no harm. But the DPT scare was just the first of many.
In 1998, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield held a press conference to announce a shocking discovery. He claimed he'd found the measles virus in the inflamed guts of eight autistic children. His research would be published in The Lancet, Britain's oldest and most respected medical journal. The trigger for the inflammation, Wakefield suggested, was a vaccination: MMR, for measles, mumps, and rubella. Though Wakefield didn't explicitly make the connection, the British press did. "Autism 'linked' to baby vaccines," one headline screamed.
Respected scientists from major universities quickly backed Wakefield's work. An Irish pathologist at Coombe Women's Hospital in Dublin said he found measles RNA in 82 percent of children with autism. A biologist at Utah State University found high levels of antibodies against the measles virus in the spinal fluid and blood of autistic kids. A New York University gastroenterologist claimed that 40 children with autism had severely inflamed intestines. As the evidence stacked up, a theory took root: MMR caused inflammation and a leaky gut, releasing autism-causing proteins into the bloodstream.
Before long, MMR was joined by another scapegoat: thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative that had been used in vaccines for decades. In July 1999, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the U.S. Public Health Service issued a joint statement urging vaccine makers to eliminate the preservative. The statement tried to reassure parents that there was no imminent danger from thimerosal-containing vaccines. But if thimerosal was safe, parents wondered, why had the medical agencies felt such urgency?
Parents quickly lined up the symptoms of autism with those of mercury poisoning. The parallels were astounding: motor skill impairment, sensitivity to sound and touch, difficulty walking and swallowing. When father-and-son team Mark and David Geier claimed that autism developed more frequently in children who had received thimerosal-based vaccines, it looked like a silver bullet. Now there were two hypotheses about vaccines and autism: MMR triggered autism, or thimerosal did. Either way, parents had reason to fear the shots.
The fears escalated when Rep. Dan Burton (R-Indiana), the grandfather of an autistic child, marshaled congressional hearings on autism and vaccines, and when Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote a screed against thimerosal for Rolling Stone. Parents began taking their autistic children to physicians who would provide alternative treatments: chelation and magnetic clay baths to pull the mercury from their bodies, diets to detoxify them, vitamins to make them well.