In light of the $75 million stripped from the Combating Autism Act of 2006 to study environmental contributions to autism and our public losses in the Vaccine Court I want to give voice to a question which keeps bubbling to the surface despite my recent pessimism. Are we actually starting to win the vaccine-autism war in the eyes of the public?
The Larry King show of April 3, 2009 was a watershed moment for our community in which the host put us on an equal footing with that part of the medical community which even to this day denies there is an autism “epidemic.” The best of the medical community was represented by Dr. Bernadine Healy, former director of the National Institute of Health who calmly expressed the frustration of many parents that the safety studies on vaccinated and unvaccinated children have not been done and that the question of whether vaccines contribute to autism is far from closed. I was also pleased that in the poll conducted on Larry’s web-site after the show, asking the question of whether autism can be “cured” was a 50-50 split. That's an enormous sea-change of public opinion since the medical community claims autism cannot be “cured.” The ranks of the rebels are growing.
But aside from what takes place on the public stage, I wanted to comment on some truly surprising things I’ve experienced in the past couple days. At one of the schools at which I teach there’s a fifth-grade teacher who’s always been interested in what I have to say about autism. I recently passed some information on to her and she was very thankful to receive it.
I commented I was so appreciative she didn’t treat me like I was a crazy person and she gave me a kind of funny look. “Why would I think that?” I shared with her a couple of my experiences with friends and family members and she couldn’t believe it.
She then went on to tell me about an autistic student she had several years ago who started on bio-medical protocols and had made amazing progress. In her group of friends the topic of vaccinations was a hot one, but nobody really seemed comfortable that they had the answer. The teacher went on to tell a story about how her mother was a two-pack a day smoker and not surprisingly, all three of her children were born pre-mature. “Today, nobody would ever think of even taking a puff while they were pregnant. I think in the future we’ll look back on how we give our vaccines now as barbaric.”
I couldn’t believe these sentiments coming from a “civilian” in the vaccine-autism wars, but they did.
An old friend recently came back into my life and sought my advice on her son who was recently diagnosed with having Asperger’s syndrome. My friend’s sister is a toxicologist, and predictably thought my ideas were loony, but my friend still went to the DAN doctor I suggested, and put her son and the entire family on a gluten/casein-free diet. The son has gone from getting constant negative reports from school and on the edge of being kicked out of his private school to getting citizenship awards. (I know they still have a long way to go, but early indications are good.)
I sent her a copy of my recent article to this friend about how bringing up the subject of vaccines and autism seems to kill any further conversation (“The Big Fart”) and she was honestly puzzled by it. “When I bring up the vaccine connection and the diet and other things to the other mothers in my son’s play-group they're all interested in it,” she said. “I haven’t had any of the sorts of reaction you’re talking about.”
I think I might have an explanation which embraces both what many of us have experienced, as well as what my fellow teacher and old friend have found. It’s said that when new ideas are presented that many people resist. They get stuck in their views. But as a new generation comes on the scene they’re more willing to look at controversial ideas. It’s not so much that the people who were against the new idea change, but that new people come to the controversy with a fresh set of eyes.
For those of us who have been fighting this war for so many years, it’s unlikely that our family members or long-time friends will change their opinions. But more people are beginning to look at the questions we’ve raised, and they're more open to it.
In closing I thought I’d mention an article from Santa Rosa’s “The Press Democrat”. (“Sonoma County at Center of Anti-Vaccine Debate”, March 28, 2009) According to the article, Sonoma County is becoming a hot-bed of anti-vaccine sentiment. (Sonoma County is the county between Napa County, famous for its great wines, and Marin County, notorious for its wealth, liberal values, hot tubs, and general weirdness.) Their investigation found that “Of the 13 schools in the state with the highest percentage of kindergartners with exemptions from vaccination requirements, three are in Sebastopol. Of the 50 schools with the highest rates of exemption, six are in Sonoma County, and two are in Marin.” This goes along with the CDC’s own investigation of those most likely to not vaccinate their children are highly educated parents.
In the past it was believed autism was a problem which only affected the children of professional people. Those who claim vaccines as a trigger for autism assert this was true at the time because those who got vaccines for their children were the highly educated, who tend to be early adopters of new medical procedures. As vaccine programs became more available to the general public through government-supported programs this disparity began to change.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if the same group which led us into autism was the same one which led us out of it?
Kent Heckenlively is the Legal Editor of Age of Autism