Outlook & Opinions

Vaccine scares

by Clive Thompson

Why didn't the United States have enough vaccine to fight swine flu this fall? It's partly because federal health officials didn't mix adjuvants into the drug. Adjuvants are substances that boost the immune system's response to a vaccine, so that less vaccine is needed per dose. Using them could have allowed us to create up to four times more H1N1 vaccine doses than we have. Most of Europe used adjuvants; so did Canada. Why didn't the feds?

They were too worried about spooking anti-vaccine activists, many of whom claim adjuvants contribute to autism. This almost certainly isn't true: Adjuvants have been widely used for years, with no reputable study suggesting a link between them and autism. But federal officials feared people would avoid the H1N1 vaccine if it included adjuvants. As Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in congressional testimony last month, "The public's confidence in our vaccine system and in vaccines in this country [is] very, very fragile."

The movement blaming vaccines for causing autism emerged in the early 2000s, and it was one of the most catastrophically horrible ideas of the decade. Not just because it's misguided: Sure, study after study has found no solid link between autism and many alleged vaccine-based culprits, ranging from adjuvants to thimoserol, a mercury-based preservative. The bigger problem is how uniquely powerful the anti-vaccine contingent has become - and how it has begun to deform both public policy and everyday behavior.

Immunization used to be regarded as one of modern society's greatest achievements; before smallpox vaccines, the disease routinely accounted for 10 percent of all deaths in Europe. But amazingly, we're now moving back to the dark ages. The number of children showing up at school in California without routine shots has doubled since 1997, according to an analysis by the Los Angeles Times. If enough people stop vaccinating their children, we will lose "herd immunity" - the ability of a society to collectively resist a disease. (You typically need something like 85 percent of a population immunized to keep the nastiest communicable diseases from circulating.)

It's impossible to tell how many swine-flu deaths were caused by the deficit of vaccine, but the numbers are serious: According to the CDC, about 10,000 people had died from the disease by the middle of last month, 1,090 of them children.

The subtler but more insidious effect of the vaccine-autism movement is philosophical. The anti-vaccine folks have whipped up anti-science sentiment by painting scientists as corrupt elitists on the take from Big Pharma, cackling sadistically as they force us to get shots. This paranoia flows equally from woo-woo Hollywood liberals and the anti-government right; few other subjects can unite Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey with Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.

Of course, the only hope we have of treating autism and, God willing, preventing it comes from careful, rigorous science - the same process that created vaccines, eradicated polio and smallpox, and saved millions of lives. For the anti-vaccine crowd, that's an irony that ought to prick.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Wired.

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