Field of Science

At the movies: popcorn and anti-vaccine fearmongering

The anti-vaccinationists have launched a new campaign this holiday season to spread cheer – oops, I mean fear – to moviegoers everywhere. Yes, the folks at SafeMinds and Age of Autism have produced an advertisement that they are trying to place in AMC theaters across the country. In fact, they almost succeeded, but quick action by skeptical science bloggers at SkepChick, Respectful Insolence, and their readerships convinced AMC to cancel the ad – for now.

The ad that SafeMinds is trying to run is intended to scare people away from getting their flu vaccine, just as flu season is beginning. The vaccine this year will protect you against both the new “swine” flu, called H1N1, and the previous flu strain, H3N2. Early data from the CDC makes it clear that both strains are still around, with H3N2 showing up somewhat more frequently so far this fall. The vaccine not only protects you, but also your family, your colleagues, and the many other people you might come into contact with each day while at work, shopping, or elsewhere.

Why try to scare people? Well, the people behind SafeMinds and Age of Autism believe that the preservative thimerosal, which is used in some but not all flu vaccines, causes autism. This theory has been thoroughly investigated over the past 10 years, and just as thoroughly discredited. In fact, it never had any positive evidence to support it in the first place, but it has been promoted aggressively by a journalist, David Kirby, who made his fortune off a book based on the thimerosal-autism hypothesis. (I’m not providing a link – Kirby has already made far too much money off this bogus claim, and I don’t want to give him the web traffic.)

Thimerosal was introduced into vaccines in the 1930s, and it is a very effective means to prevent the growth of bacteria without affecting the potency of the vaccine itself. In over 60 years and hundreds of millions of doses, it has proven to be quite benign. Nonetheless, it contains a form of mercury called ethylmercury, which anti-vaccinationists claim causes autism and other neurological disorders.

The claim that thimerosal causes autism was the central question of a large, multi-year Autism Omnibus trial, which ruled definitively last year that thimerosal does not cause autism. I wrote about that ruling at some length back in March, and I won’t repeat it here, except to quote again from the Special Master’s decision:
“The numerous medical studies concerning the issue of whether thimerosal causes autism, performed by medical scientists worldwide, have come down strongly against the petitioners’ contentions. Considering all of the evidence, I find that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to the causation of autism.”
The anti-vax crowd will not give up, unfortunately. Rather than spending their time and effort trying to find the true causes of autism, they continue to repeat claims that have already been shown false. For example, the SafeMinds website lists 5 “key points” that are just flat-out wrong. Here are the first two:
  1. “The autism epidemic that began in the late 1980’s is likely due primarily to toxins adversely affecting fetus and infants during development.” Wrong, in at least two ways. First, there is no autism “epidemic.” The best evidence today indicates that the rising rates of autism are due to a combination of factors, primarily (a) rising rates of diagnosis due to increased awareness among physicians and patients and (b) a dramatically broader medical definition of autism that was introduced in the early 1990s.
  2. “Mercury is likely a major contributor to this toxin-induced autism, whether the source of the mercury is from vaccines or environmental mercury exposure.” Wrong again. This is the claim that was so thoroughly refuted in the lengthy Autism Omnibus trial, with hundreds of pages of testimony from dozens of experts, and epidemiological data from literally hundreds of thousands of people.

But data doesn’t seem to have any effect on the anti-vax zealots at Age of Autism and SafeMinds.

Because AMC refused to run their ad, Age of Autism is telling its readers to stay away from AMC theaters this holiday season. I hope they do! Why? Because these unvaccinated individuals are a genuine threat to public health. Movie theaters, and the malls in which they are located, are an ideal place for infectious diseases to spread. Without vaccines, countless thousands of people would fall ill every holiday season after mingling with other shoppers, and some would likely die. My message to the unvaccinated crowd at SafeMinds is: stay away from the rest of us.

And I encourage everyone else to get your flu shot, get your kids vaccinated, and then go see a movie at an AMC theater. Meanwhile, you can also tell them at this link that you appreciate their taking a stand against misinformation and for the benefit of public health.

1 comment:

  1. I became aware of your blog from the recent article in The Atlantic. I just want to thank you for what you are doing at this blog. I personally had been alarmed by the many news reports of the "autism epidemic," and I was relieved to hear that the sky-rocketing rate of autism was due to increased awareness and diagnosis on the part of doctors and a loosening of the diagnostic criteria in the nineties. I had been concerned that there was some new toxin in the environment.

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