The Cult of People who believe Vaccines cause Autism

According to a very vocal movement, Vaccines cause Autism. To date, there is no scientific evidence to confirm this myth; if anything, there is abundant evidence that clearly disproves a link between vaccines and Autism. Unimpressed by facts and without any proof whatsoever, the cult of anti-vaccine fanatics cling to their doctrine, to the detriment of society in general.

My favorite joke goes like this:

What’s the difference between the Anti-Vaxx movement and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Jehovah’s Witnesses only let their own children die.

Sadly, it’s not a joke. While Jehovah’s Witnesses are notorious for choosing their anti-blood policy over the lives of their loved ones, the Anti-Vaxx movement has been responsible for the deaths of innocent children.

It all started with a botched study by one Andrew Wakefield who was the first to posit a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His study ignited a whole movement of parents ditching vaccination, and in the wake, measles soared and the Cult of Anti-Vaxx was born (if you prefer comics, here is 15-page graphic novel rundown of the Wakefield debacle).

Alas, the so-called evidence was a hoax. Since its initial release, the study has been widely discredited for being fraudulent. 10 of the study’s co-authors withdrew their names from the publication in 2004. A replication of the study in 2008 directly contradicted Wakefield’s findings, concluding that there is no correlation between the vaccine and autism in children. The study has since been retracted by The Lancet.

To make matters worse, Wakefield’s scientific behaviour was called into question. The database of only 12 children was far too small to have any significance. By comparison, a 2009 study which contradicts Wakefield’s findings involved a cohort of 95 000 children.

Adding to that, substantial ethical concerns were raised. According to a variety of sources, Wakefield had received a consulting fee from attorneys who represented clients that were convinced MMR had caused their children’s autism. The majority of children involved in the study were part of said litigation. Adding to that, Andrew Wakefield had tried to patent a vaccine he believed to be safer. His study would have increased his chances to make a profit off a disgraced MMR vaccine.

The General Medical Council found Andrew Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant” and had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his study. He is barred from practising medicine in the United Kingdom. Andrew Wakefield denies these allegations.

Interestingly, the authors of the retracted study wrote back then that their research “did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the [autism] syndrome described.” Anti-Vaxx parents don’t care. For them, Andrew Wakefield is a martyr, a hero. And Andrew Wakefield recently said: “I think MMR contributes to the current autism epidemic.”

Only, that it doesn’t. There is absolutely no proof for this claim.

In short, these are the facts:

So, the only sensible thing to conclude is that vaccines do not cause autism. Period.

Sadly, Cults rarely are sensible. If proven wrong, Cults rather stick to their standpoint, regardless of the evidence at hand. It is more difficult to abandon a world view than to go into three wise monkeys mode. This is true of typicals Cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientology, and it is true of pseudo-religious Cults like Anti-Vaxxers (on a side note, there’s quite a number of former Jehovah’s Witnesses who transition directly into the Anti-Vaxx movement, probably due to a newfound mistrust of any institution).

The Anti-Vaxx movement has no proper argument to substantiate their claims. Apart from Andrew Wakefield’s study, their whole case relies on hearsay and the odd Youtube-Video by some disgraced doctor looking for attention. Two of their best “arguments” fall apart when you take a closer look. For example, supposed crown witness William Thompson insists that vaccines are safe and there never was a “true association between the MMR vaccine and autism-like features in this subpopulation”.

And then there’s the curious case of Hannah Poling, whose parents were indeed awarded damages following a vaccination. For one, the standards of decision-making were sub-par and not in the least of any scientific value. Also, at no point was there any concession or proof Hannah was autistic: “Hannah Poling clearly had difficulties with language, speech, and communication. But those features of her condition considered autistic were part of a global encephalopathy caused by a mitochondrial enzyme deficit. Rett’s syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, fragile X syndrome, and Down’s syndrome in children can also have autistic features. Indeed, features reminiscent of autism are evident in all children with profound impairments in cognition; but these similarities are superficial, and their causal mechanisms and genetic influences are different from those of classic autism.” Again, there is no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism.

Do Anti-Vaxx parents care? No.

Cults are communities of mutual understanding, immune to criticism from the outside and the inside. This applies very much to the anti-vaccine movement, who have sadly gained momentum courtesy of the endorsement by celebrity disciples including Jenny McCarthy, Robert Rodriguez and Robert de Niro’s wife, leading to the worst measles epidemic in 20 years. As in all Cults, children are the foremost victims of the irrationality of their fanatical parents. Children of Anti-Vaxx parents endanger other children who are too young to have been vaccinated. Many children depend on herd immunity – but the Anti-Vaxx movement doesn’t care one bit, contributing to an insane body count.

In the end, it all comes down to this one fraudulent study published in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield. There is no other proof. Hold on, there is no scientific evidence.

You see, similar to Cults and God’s help and miracles and the power of prayer, the whole Anti-Vaxx movement is built on anecdotal evidence (here is an article explaining the difference between science-based reasoning and anecdotal evidence).

Something that happened to that guy you know. The kid of a work mate. An interview you listened to on Oprah. Your cousin’s children. That’s the kind of “evidence” we are dealing with when looking at the Anti-Vaxx Cult.

But that’s not evidence. These are anecdotes, and anecdotes rely on correlation. Correlation, on the other hand, is not causality. There is nothing scientific about this approach, which makes the anti-vaccine movement a pseudo-religious group or: a Cult.

Because, here’s the thing. If you rely on anecdotal evidence for proof, I have the best argument ever that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) in particular and vaccines in general don’t cause autism:

I wasn’t vaccinated. I had measles, mumps, and rubella as a kid. I am also autistic. Go figure.


Further reading:

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