academic environmental studies   macalester college

Environmental Studies

Losing faith in science: the rhetoric of denialism in the autism/vaccines debate




Present day

References & Links

   Comments & questions to:

Losing faith in science: the rhetoric of denialism in the autism/vaccines debate


   There are three main sides to this debate.  One consists of those concerned citizens who believe that a link exists between vaccine exposure and increased incidence of ASD.  Another side contains people who might not believe quite as strongly in the rhetoric of this controversy, but who still would like to see precautionary measures taken to ensure the safety of every vaccine administered anywhere.  The third side encompasses the rest of the world, people who either have no issue with vaccinations or who will argue just as passionately that vaccines are inherently good.

The rhetoric behind anti-vaccine denialism

   As mentioned previously, the use of rhetoric in an anti-vaccine context is relatively unique among instances of denialism.  Unlike global warming, for example, in which one could make a legitimate case that such opposing efforts would result in higher profit margins for the individuals and corporations that would otherwise be affected the most, there is no such economic foundation here.  Rather, the anti-vaccine mentality comes from a place of genuine concern, out of a desperate attempt to find any way to explain the rising incidence of ASD in recent years.  If a child suddenly starts showing signs of ASD past the age of two, parents have every right to be concerned, and to pursue any means necessary to try and determine what might have caused it.  This is truly an example of citizen science, of parents making their own decisions about which scientific tools and aids they will allow their children to utilize.

   To that end, current anti-vaccine rhetoric can be quite persuasive.  One prominent anti-vaccine website, Generation Rescue, espouses a safety first approach, encouraging parents, on the advice of a surgeon at the University of Washington, to avoid vaccinations until their children reach the age of two.  Considering that the current CDC vaccine schedule recommends that children receive a total of 30 vaccinations before they reach that age, this advice could very likely increase the chance that the very children these parents are trying to help might contract one of the diseases these vaccines are intended to prevent.  In addition, Generation Rescue invokes the specter of big business, suggesting that the substantial increase in the number of CDC-recommended vaccines in recent years is directly related to the amount of access vaccine manufacturers have to the relevant policymakers.

    The anti-vaccine movement relies on the correlation between higher incidences of ASD in the past twenty years and the higher number of vaccines administered to young children in that same time.  They cite no scientific studies to back up their claims.  Neither do they acknowledge that the study that started it all, the 1998 Andrew Wakefield study that linked ASD with complications resulting from administration of the MMR vaccine, has since been completely discredited by every other co-author the study had, as well as the journal that published it in the first place.  Neither do they mention that the one country that has stopped its use of the MMR vaccine, Japan, has not only seen its ASD rates go up, but go up proportionately and at the same time as they phased it out.  What's more, nowhere on their site is any mention of the significant risks parents would be taking by not administering vaccines at the recommended times.

    Consider the following statement, again taken from Generation Rescue: "Vaccines have real documented risks, and the U.S. Government knows this...The CDC maintains a database called the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System or VAERS. This database keeps track of publicly reported adverse reactions to vaccines. In a ten year period (1991-2001), VAERS received 128,717 reports of adverse events, of which 14% were described as "serious" which means "death, life-threatening illness, hospitalization or prolongation of hospitalization, or permanent disability."  On the surface, this claim appears rather startling.  128,717 adverse events seems like a lot.  However, if 14% of those were "serious", that brings the number down to roughly 18,000 cases spread out over ten years, for a total of 1,800 cases each year.  While the total number of vaccines administered yearly is currently unknown, if one takes a conservative estimate of 10 million yearly vaccinations, that would put the percentage rate of "serious" events at 0.18 percent, or 18 out of every 10,000 vaccinations administered.  However, when one matches this statistic up against the reported 2.6 million people who otherwise would have contracted measles and the 2,600 people who would have died from it each year were it not for the MMR vaccine (according to the previously-mentioned 1985 Pediatrics study), that previous number gains a bit of perspective.

Vaccine precaution

   But not all vaccine safety concerns paint such a black-and-white picture of the situation.  In order to effectively store vaccines for as long as is required, most, if not all vaccines contain some sort of preservative.  Until 1999, that preservative was almost always Thimerosal, which contained a base of mercury.  Mercury is seen as a health hazard by every incarnation of the EPA that has ever existed, and when considering something as widespread as vaccine usage, the fact that a mercury preservative was in use was something well worth studying.

    However, before any federal regulatory body was able to administer a rule pertaining to this potential issue, the main vaccine manufacturers decided to follow the precautionary principle: with the exception of most flu vaccines, all vaccinations administered today no longer contain mercury in any form. 

    But unfortunately for those individuals and institutions that are more interested in ensuring the safety of those vaccines that do exist, rather than encourage their complete avoidance, they do very little to differentiate themselves from the more extreme anti-vaccine groups.  In fact, it is rare to find any acknowledgement that there could be more than two sides to this debate at all.  This side mainly exists as a subset of the anti-vaccine groups, as their precautionary concerns are mixed in with more extreme claims that, with some people even going so far as to declare that the WHO's efforts to provide AIDS treatment to African victims is just an excuse to commit genocide, among other such outlandish claims.

    To be sure, as vaccines are so ubiquitous in this modern age, and the sheer number of people who are exposed to them is beyond astronomical, any serious safety concern should be studied, examined, and thoroughly tested.  However, to assume that any potential concern over vaccine safety validates any and every extreme claim made by the anti-vaccine movement would not only be misguided, but extremely detrimental to the eminently more reasonable precautionary proponents.

Pro-vaccine arguments

   Surprisingly, despite the amount of public attention the anti-vaccine movement has received in recent years, there has not been an equal level of pushback on the part of a pro-vaccine movement.  It is entirely possible that most government officials or medical practitioners might not see the anti-vaccine movement as much of a problem, considering how extreme their positions are when compared to the benefits vaccines do provide. 

    To be sure, the medical establishment has addressed these issues.  The Center for Disease Control has published the Pink Book, a reference book containing details on every vaccine-preventable disease known to humankind, along with "pathogenesis, clinical features, laboratory diagnosis, medical management, epidemiology, risk factors, trends in the United States, vaccine details, vaccination schedule and use, contraindications and precautions to vaccination, adverse reactions following vaccination, vaccine storage and handling, and reference or publications."  In short, it contains almost everything anyone would ever need in terms of information on currently-established vaccinations.

    In addition, the CDC website now features an extensive array of information on the supposed vaccine-autism link.  It attempts to address any concerns parents, unconvinced medical professionals, or anyone else might have, in both plain English and through accepted scientific studies.  What's more, it presents the issue through the context of the benefits vaccines do provide, trying to promote the massive positive effects they bring society.

    However, the most common way pro-vaccine groups seem to be addressing these concerns is to just rely on the general public's common sense.  Doctors are still encouraging vaccines, people are still receiving them, and the anti-vaccine movement appears to be a well-known fringe group at best.  It might require that doctors and nurses become more well-versed on the exact science behind vaccinations, or that individual hospitals and clinics start to print up small pamphlets on "The truth about vaccines", but thankfully for America, this populace doesn't seem to have embraced the anti-vaccine movement as substantially as 1998 Great Britain did.  Vaccination rates are still high, incidence rates of measles, mumps, and rubella are still low, and life seems to be going on as it was before all of this started.


"spritsi", by ˙Cаvin 〄

Last updated:  5/3/2010


Macalester College 1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105  USA  651-696-6000
Comments and questions to