Category: Blog

How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Hurts Autistic Families

Many people see Jenny McCarthy battling doctors to save or recover her son as being anti-autism.
Many people see Jenny McCarthy battling doctors to save or recover her son as being anti-autism.

People have different reasons for skipping or delaying vaccines.

Some are simply scared of things they have heard from friends or family members – the common anti-vaccine myths and misinformation that float around on Facebook.

Others feel that either they or someone in their family has been a victim of a vaccine injury. While vaccine injuries are real, as no vaccine is 100% safe, these injuries almost certainly don’t occur as often as some people think they do.

Consequences of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Although the anti-vaccine movement has been around as long as there have been vaccines, we are starting to see new consequences.

In addition to harming herd immunity levels and triggering outbreaks, by pushing their anti-vaccine ideas, many of these folks often hurt autistic families too.

How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Hurts Autistic Families

Many people think that the anti-vaccine message is anti-autism.

“Autism, as I see it, steals the soul from a child…”

Dr. Jerry Kartzinel writing in the introduction to Jenny McCarthy’s first autism book Louder Than Words

Why?

In addition to the imagery of a soulless child, Jenny McCarthy said multiple times that it would be better to have a life threatening vaccine-preventable disease instead of autism. Folks would line up for it she said.

This “deficit model” of thinking about autism, “which focuses almost exclusively on impairments and limitations, ultimately leads us to see autistic individuals as broken people who are ill and, as my child’s first psychologist explained, need to be fixed.”

“I look at autism like a bus accident, and you don’t become cured from a bus accident, but you can recover.”

Jenny McCarthy

Hopefully, no one looks at their autistic child and thinks about a child in a bus accident, or a child who has lost their soul, been kidnapped by autism, or that they have a damaged child.  That kind of thinking is offensive to many, and hopefully more and more people.

Other reasons the anti-vaccine message is often seen as anti-autism include that:

  • Anti-vaccine/anti-autism rhetoric might get in the way of a parent accepting their child’s diagnosis of autism.
  • They push expensive, often unproven, sometimes disproven, and dangerous  non-evidence based biomedical treatments and cures on hopeful parents of autistic kids. Things like bleach enemas (miracle medical solution), chemical castration with Lupron, hyperbaric oxygen chambers, chelation, restrictive diets, stem cell therapy, raw camel milk, vitamin supplements, antifungal drugs for Candida, secretin injections, and so on, etc.
  • They waste resources. Every dollar that is spent defending vaccines, refuting an antivaccine study, controlling an outbreak, or on a MAPS doctor (the new DAN! doctors), is a dollar that cannot be invested in the needs of actually autistic people and their families.
  • They lead others from understanding that “communicating a strengths-based approach to autism may not only afford autistic patients the respect and dignity they deserve, but may also help family members better understand and support their loved ones.”
  • It leads to ableist messaging when we respond to anti-vaccine fears by saying “don’t worry, vaccines don’t cause autism” without pointing out that “autism and neurodiversity are far from the worst things that could happen to a parent.”

The anti-vaccine movement also harms the relationship many of these parents have with their pediatrician (who they characterize as vaccine pushers controlled by Big Pharma), pushing them to alternative providers who will be more likely to pander to their fears about vaccines and allow their kids to follow a non-standard, parent-selected, delayed protection vaccine schedule. These are often the same types of providers who push biomed treatments, instead of more standard therapies that a pediatrician or neurologist might recommend, who would also be more likely to explain that “autistic children can and do exhibit improvement in their symptoms simply through growth and development.”

And of course, in addition to being anti-autism, the anti-vaccine movement is typically anti-science.

Sarah Kurchak sums it up well in her recent article, Here’s How the Anti-Vaccination Movement Hurts Autistic People, saying that “The anti-vaccine argument is wrong in both the scientific and moral sense.”

“A huge thing for parents in the anti-vaccine movement is the emotional support. The talk of cures and biomedical interventions is almost secondary to the feeling of connectedness with other parents. A lot of the appeal of the community is just being able to talk to people who can relate to what you’ve been through.”

Seth Mookin author of The Panic Virus

It is certainly understandable to want and need support, but parents of autistic children should know that they can get that support from other parents who don’t think that their child is damaged.

In advocating for vaccines, I refuse to stigmatize autistic people.
In advocating for vaccines, I refuse to stigmatize autistic people. I will use neurodiversity over ableist messaging.

What To Know About the Anti-Vax Movement Hurting Autistics

Autism is not vaccine damage. Instead of a deficit model, it is best seen through a neurodiversity model, which “sees autistic individuals as possessing a complex combination of cognitive strengths and challenges.”

More on How Anti-Vax Movement Hurts Autistic Families

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Measles Deaths in the 21st Century

An infant hospitalized during a measles outbreak in the Philippines in which 110 people died.
An infant hospitalized during a measles outbreak in the Philippines in which 110 people died. Photo by Jim Goodson, M.P.H.

Measles is a big killer.

According to the WHO, “In 2015, there were 134,200 measles deaths globally – about 367 deaths every day or 15 deaths every hour.”

But it wasn’t that long ago, in 1980, that measles was causing at least 2.6 million deaths a year. And just 17 years ago, in 2000, measles caused about 777,000 deaths worldwide.

Measles Deaths in the 21st Century

While some experts doubt if we will ever truly eradicate measles, like we have done for smallpox, a lot of progress is being made on reducing measles outbreaks and deaths thanks to routine and supplemental immunizations.

Tragically, measles still kills.

“For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die from it.”

CDC – Complications of Measles

And it is not just in developing countries that don’t have access to vaccines or adequate levels of vitamin A or modern healthcare. It should also be obvious, when you look at the cases below, that you don’t have to wait for there to be a 1,000 people in an outbreak for there to be a death. It could be the first person in the outbreak or you might see 3 or deaths between cases 3,000 to 4,000.

During the 2010 and 2011 outbreaks in Europe, after all, with about 30,000 cases of measles each year, there were at least 28 deaths.

There are now 36 deaths in this year's measles outbreaks in Europe.
There are now 37 deaths in this year’s measles outbreaks in Europe.

So far, just this year, according to the ECDC, there are reports of:

  • the death of a 10-month-old unvaccinated child in Bulgaria (among just 163 cases)
  • the death of a 37-year-old partially vaccinated women (the mother of 3 kids) in Essen, Germany (among about 797 cases)
  • the death of a 17-year-old girl who was not vaccinated in Portugal (among just 31 cases)
  • 31 deaths in Romania, almost all unvaccinated children (among 7,491 cases since January 2016)
  • the death of a vaccinated man who was being treated for leukemia in Switzerland (among just 69 cases)
  • three deaths in Italy (among 3,672 cases), including a 6-year-old boy with leukemia who reportedly caught measles from an unvaccinated sibling.

Unfortunately, measles cases continue to rise in most of these countries and many others…

The latest death – a man in Dolj county, Romania, raising the number of measles deaths to 32 in that country.

Outside of the EU, cases of measles and deaths include:

  • 20,898 cases in the DR Congo with at least 241 deaths
  • 2,246 cases in Ethiopia
  • 1,891 cases in South Sudan with at least 16 deaths
  • 1,527 cases in Guinea with at least 2 deaths
  • 10 deaths of children in Bangladesh
  • 40 deaths of infants in Indonesia
  • 13,484 cases in Nigeria with at least 77 deaths

Are you planning a trip to Europe any time soon? How about Indonesia or DR Congo, for which the CDC has also issued travel health notices? Even if you aren’t, as these outbreaks rise, it increases the chances that another traveler will bring measles home and expose someone in your community, starting an outbreak.

And while we deal with folks who simply don’t want to vaccinate and protect their kids, no one should lose sight of the fact that “In 2015, there were 134,200 measles deaths globally – about 367 deaths every day or 15 deaths every hour.”

What To Know About Measles Deaths

Kids are still dying of measles and the big take away should be that it doesn’t take thousands of cases for there to be a death and it can happen to a healthy child in a developed country with modern healthcare.

Get Educated. Get Vaccinated. Stop the Outbreaks

More Information About Measles Deaths

Updated July 24, 2017

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Obstetric Tetanus Is Still a Thing in the United States

Yes, even though we have had a tetanus vaccine for over 80 years, obstetric tetanus is still a thing in the United States.

Obstetric Tetanus in Kentucky

According to a report from the CDC, in July 2016, an unvaccinated Amish woman in Kentucky developed “facial numbness and neck pain, which progressed over 24 hours to stiff neck and jaw and difficulty swallowing and breathing” about nine days after “she delivered a child at home, assisted by an unlicensed community childbirth assistant.”

She  was hospitalized for a month, during which time she had seizures and was on a mechanical ventilator to help her breath for a “prolonged” amount of time.

Fortunately, her baby didn’t also develop tetanus, even though the family refused a recommended dose of tetanus immunoglobulin that could prevent neonatal tetanus from developing.

Surprisingly, after this incident, only 12% of community members agreed to be vaccinated with a tetanus vaccine. One pregnant woman even refused to get vaccinated. This is even less than the response to the Ohio measles outbreak in 2014, when up to 28% of unvaccinated Amish members got vaccinated with an MMR vaccine.

Neonatal Tetanus

An 8-day old baby with neonatal tetanus born to an unvaccinated mother.
An 8-day old baby with neonatal tetanus born to an unvaccinated mother. (CC BY 3.0)

In addition to obstetric tetanus, getting tetanus during or right after a pregnancy, neonatal tetanus is a big concern for unvaccinated mothers. Just like if their mothers don’t get a flu or pertussis containing vaccine, without a tetanus vaccine, newborn babies don’t get any passive immunity and protection against tetanus.

In 2015, 34,019 newborns died from neonatal tetanus worldwide. Amazingly, that is down from 787,000 newborns in 1988 “through immunization of children, mothers, other women of reproductive age (WRA) and promotion of more hygienic deliveries and cord care practices.”

It is not all about hygiene though. Tetanus spores are everywhere. For example, in the Kentucky case, the CDC found no evidence of “birth trauma, unsterile conditions, or other complications.”

In Montana, the baby of an unvaccinated mother developed tetanus that was linked to a non-sterile clay that was given to them by a midwife for home umbilical cord care.

Fortunately, these kinds of cases are rare. There have probably been less than 40 cases of neonatal tetanus since the early 1970s, and only two since 1989, but they should still be a reminder of what could happen if we stop getting vaccinated.

Risky Umbilical Cord Practices

Adding to the risk of getting tetanus, the same moms who aren’t getting vaccinated and protected may be following unsafe umbilical cord care practices.

“…tetanus in neonates can result from umbilical cord colonization, particularly in countries with limited resources. This infection results from contamination of the umbilical separation site by Clostridium tetani acquired from a nonsterile device used to separate the umbilical cord during the peripartum period or from application of unhygienic substances to the cord stump.”

AAP – Umbilical Cord Care in the Newborn Infant – 2016

In countries that are still combating neonatal tetanus, we hear of mothers in rural areas  putting herbs, herbal pastes, chalk, powders, clay, oils, and even butter on their baby’s umbilical cord.

These natural substances are certainly not safer than more standard care, as they can be contaminated with something else that is natural – tetanus spores.

What natural things, and risky, things can you see recommended for umbilical cord care in developed countries? How about honey, goldenseal powder, Frankincense and myrrh oil, and Aztec Healing Clay?

You don’t feed honey to infants because of the risk of botulism spores, but you are supposed to put it directly on their umbilical stump?

Some midwifes even recommend ground rosemary or other dried herbs that you are actually supposed to sprinkle directly on your baby’s umbilical stump. The use of dried herbs is especially problematic. It is well known that these products are not sterile.

“Spore forming bacteria (B. cereus, C. perfringens) that are capable of causing foodborne disease when ingested in large numbers are frequently found in spices and herbs, but usually at low levels.”

Food Microbiology. Volume 26, Issue 1, February 2009, Pages 39–43

If dried herbs are also contaminated with tetanus spores (C. tetani), and you place them on an umbilical cord stump of a child whose mother wasn’t vaccinated against tetanus, then you unnecessarily increase the risk for neonatal tetanus.

Not that you would ever hear about this risk from anyone who pushes these practices or tells these moms to avoid getting vaccinated. What happened to informed consent?

And what happens as Andrew Wakefield‘s kids continue to grow up, move beyond getting measles, and begin to have kids? If they still aren’t vaccinated, they and their babies will be at risk for diseases that we thought we had gotten well controlled, like obstetric tetanus, neonatal tetanus, and congenital rubella syndrome.

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Get a Vaccine Checkup Before Traveling with Your Kids

Get vaccinated. Measles is just a plane ride away.
Get vaccinated: Bring home fun souvenirs, photos, and fantastic memories, not measles!

Got plans to travel this spring or summer?

Going out of the country?

Taking the kids?

While a trip abroad can be a great experience for kids, whether you are just site seeing or you are visiting family, don’t forget to take some simple precautions so that your family comes back safe and healthy.

Get a Vaccine Checkup Before You Travel

It is important to remember that just because your kids are up-to-date on their routine childhood immunizations, that doesn’t mean that they are ready to travel out of the country.

It might surprise some folks to know that there are many vaccines that kids in the United States don’t routinely get, like vaccines that protect against cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, and Japanese encephalitis, etc. These are considered to be travel vaccines and may be recommended or required depending on where you are going.

How do you know which vaccines your kids need?

The CDC Traveler’s Health website is the best place to figure it out. With a list of 245 destinations, in addition to offering advice on how to avoid vaccine-preventable diseases, you get recommendations on avoiding others too, like Zika and malaria.

Don’t wait until the last minute before checking on these vaccine recommendations though. These are not vaccines that most pediatricians have in their office, so call or visit your pediatrician a few months in advance to plan out how you will get them. As a last resort, if your pediatrician can’t order them, can’t help you get them from an area pharmacy, and they aren’t available at your local health department, you might look to see if there is a “travel clinic” nearby.

Don’t Forget the Early MMR Recommendations

It’s also important to remember to make sure your child’s routine vaccines are up-to-date too. Confusing things a little, that can mean getting their MMR vaccines early.

Many parents, and some pediatricians,  often forget that before traveling out of the United States:

  • Infants 6 months through 11 months of age should receive one dose of MMR vaccine. While this early dose should provide protection while traveling, it doesn’t provide full protection, doesn’t count as the 12 to 15 month routine dose, and will need to be repeated.
  • Children 12 months of age and older should receive two doses of MMR vaccine separated by at least 28 days. So even if your child is less than 4-years, he or she needs two doses of MMR before traveling out of the country. This second early dose won’t have to be repeated when they do turn 4.
  • Teenagers and adults who do not have evidence of immunity against measles should get two doses of MMR vaccine separated by at least 28 days. While some adults are considered fully vaccinated with one dose of MMR, that isn’t true if they are traveling out of the country. Travelers need two doses!

Continuing outbreaks of measles linked to unvaccinated and partially vaccinated travelers highlight the need to spread the word about these recommendations.

Traveling is fun. Be sure to bring back some great memories and a few souvenirs. Don’t bring home measles or other diseases that you can then spread to others in your community or on the plane ride home.

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