ASF staff member Jonathan Carter spoke with Dr. Offit about his new book.
For those who have read your other books, what differentiates this book from your previous works?
This book tells a much bigger story. Autism’s False Prophets told the story of the people and the forces behind the fear in the autism community. This book speaks more generally about the fact that vaccines save lives, they do not cause harm. It gets behind the science of vaccines, the erosion of immunization rates in communities and looks at vaccine usage dating back to England during the 1850s.
In an interview with pointofinquiry.org on February 12th of 2010, you stated that you wrote, Autism’s False Prophets for parents and to prevent them from making decisions that could damage their children. Did you write Deadly Choices for that same audience?
Actually, this book is for a larger audience. Unlike Autism’s False Prophets, Deadly Choices gets into the politics of this particular phenomenon – the erosion of vaccines and vaccine usage. At the end of the book, I try to look at solutions to try and turn this [the erosion of vaccine usage] around. Initially, I thought that it would turn around when children started to die as a result of not vaccinating. But I was wrong. Kids are already dying and something needs to be done.
I wrote this book for children; Deadly Choices is an attempt to stand up for them. A child’s vaccination decisions are made by his or her parents. If an adult chooses not to be vaccinated from Hepatitis B and she dies, that was her own choice to not be vaccinated. What bothers me is that children aren’t making that choice. Who represents the children? In the United States we balance the sovereign right of the parent to make a choice for the child against the right of the state to protect children. In some respects, we are far too slanted towards the rights of parents, and that is to the detriment of unvaccinated children and the larger community.
Do you think the Federal and state governments and public health agencies are doing enough to promote timely administration of vaccines? If not, what should they be doing?
I think the government should make it very tough to gain an exemption from a vaccination. To attempt to gain an exemption, a person should go through an educational program where they hear the information and the facts about vaccines and about the diseases they prevent.
What is the origin of the modern anti-vaccine movement? Is it Andrew Wakefield’s paper?
No, the origin of the modern American anti vaccine movement began on April 19th 1982. On this date, a one-hour documentary was shown locally on a Washington, DC NBC affiliate. The documentary gave birth to the notion that DPT vaccines could cause brain damage. In Deadly Choices I discuss this documentary at length, as well as the other factors leading up to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. I also discuss The National Vaccine Information Center, which was created in 1982, which does an excellent job at spreading misinformation and creating fear of vaccines, including the DPT vaccine.
Who are the thought leaders of the anti-vaccine movement?
People like Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center. And then there are anti-vaccination groups that focus on autism, led JB Handley, Jenny McCarthy and Generation Rescue. What bothers me is the degree to which these groups put forth information that is not science based. Unfortunately their opinions get much more publicity than they are due, as their contrarian viewpoints are sought out by Congress and the media in effort to be seen as being balanced.
What is the socio-economic makeup of the anti-vaccine movement?
If you look at who chooses to let their children go unvaccinated, it’s typically an upper-middle, upper class population. This goes against what a lot of people think [that lower socio-economic classes would be less likely to vaccinate]. In Philadelphia for example, the Hispanic population get vaccinated. This is because they trust their doctors and they trust doctors’ expertise. Not so with some within the upper class population. It is graduate school-educated, college-educated people who tend not to vaccinate, and that seems to be universally true.
Can you comment on the science, or lack thereof, of the anti-vaccine movement?
Yes. As an example, the polio vaccine used between 1962 and 1998, known as oral polio vaccine, could actually cause polio. Each year, around 6 to 8 kids were paralyzed or killed by the vaccine. This finding is proven by science.
The problem with current vaccine groups is that they are advocating for a problem that doesn’t exist. Vaccines do not cause autism, diabetes or other developmental disorders or diseases. If they did, we would have discovered this fact via the dozens of scientific studies looking at vaccines and autism.
Do you think that the anti-vaccine movement has influenced autism research?
Yes, a disproportionate amount of money has been spent to research the vaccine and autism connection. What is needed are groups like you [the Autism Science Foundation] which focus on the right issues. Many groups are still asking the wrong questions.
Has the anti-vaccine vitriol increased in the past few years?
I think that it has increased somewhat. The internet has made it easier to find like-minded people. So I think it’s better organized; it’s actually quite well organized. However, I sense that things are beginning to swing back. The recent pertussis [whooping cough] epidemic in California has killed ten people and the mumps outbreak in New York and New Jersey have actually been very well covered by the media. So I think that the erosion of vaccination rates have had a clear consequence that is being seen by the media and the public.
Do you find the media at fault for the rise of the anti vaccine movement?
Somewhat, but for the last 10 years the media have been much better at covering the story. Previously they would hide behind the journalistic mantra of balance of both sides. Unfortunately it is more work to gather facts and offer perspective than to tell a he-said, she-said story. I think that the mainstream media, The New York Times and Chicago Tribune for example, don’t do it as much anymore. They have a better perspective.
Your books have become a lightening rod of criticism. For Autism’s False Prophets, you couldn’t conduct a book tour because of death threats. Do you still get hate mail? Do you expect to get any more after Deadly Choices comes out?
When I wrote Autism’s False Prophets, I thought that a large amount of parents who had children with autism believed that vaccines caused that autism. However, that number was much smaller than I thought. When I wrote AFP, I received hundreds of emails and letters from parents thanking me and saying they were glad someone was finally representing their point of view. I received many, many letters of support. Parents saying thank you, parents saying that Jenny McCarthy doesn’t represent them. I think that will happen with Deadly Choices as well.