Two members of the new MN Autism Council are vaccine skeptics

In 2017, Minnesota experienced the greatest measles epidemic in the state's recent history.

In 2017, Minnesota experienced the greatest measles epidemic in the state's recent history. Associated Press

Last fall, the MN Autism Council was formed to help make Minnesota a better place for people with autism – from treatment to education to independent living.

But only a few months in existence and it’s already the subject of heated debate: Two of its 30 members are confirmed vaccine skeptics.

Members Wayne Rohde and Patti Carroll are both part of the Vaccine Safety Council of Minnesota and Health Choice, organizations that have argued that vaccines can be harmful (they can, in extremely rare cases) and that they may cause autism (they do not).

Republican Senator Jim Abeler, who formed the MN Autism Council, says Rohde and Carroll are both “remarkably useful” members of the group. They both have children on the autism spectrum, and they “represent a community” of people who have “concerns about vaccines.” That, he says, is part of why he “consciously” picked these two people.

Abeler, a chiropractor by trade, wouldn’t say whether he believes vaccines have a link to autism, and he said at a recent meeting of the council that he’d “suggest we don’t discuss that anytime soon, or maybe never.” He believes vaccines could cause a wide variety of harms to children, some of which he believes may be underreported.

But refusing to address the issue of vaccines and autism implies that there’s a debate to be had. There is no proven link between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder. In fact, the origin of the supposed vaccine-autism link is a 1998 case study broadly regarded as an “elaborate fraud.”

This case study, published in The Lancet, was the work of gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who claimed the mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine (MMR) may “predispose to behavioral regression and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” It was eventually retracted by the journal and its co-authors and declared “utterly false” due to its tiny sample size and uncontrolled design -- not to mention the “speculative nature of its conclusions.”

But the damage had already been done. Vaccination rates plummeted -- not just in Wakefield’s native Britain, but in Europe overall, and in the United States. Outbreaks of previously controllable diseases like measles followed. It took nearly two decades for vaccination rates in the UK to recover, and not before 12,000 cases of measles and hundreds of hospitalizations. At least three people died.

The fear caused by Wakefield’s shoddy research was as tenacious as it was dangerous, and we’re far from through experiencing its effects. Right here in Minnesota, in 2017, we experienced the biggest measles outbreak in recent history. There were about 75 cases that year, and 91 percent of the patients had not been vaccinated -- many of them from the state’s Somali-American community.

Which is why some of the council’s other 28 members are concerned about Rohde and Carroll planting a seed of doubt.

“Even if [vaccines are] not something that’s discussed or that a policy is going to come out of, giving them this large contingency on this council is dangerous,” council member Noah McCourt told the Star Tribune. “It’s giving credence to a theory that’s false.”