In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism.
Together with colleagues from Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, where I work, we did an in-depth study of kindergarten schoolchildren who receive vaccine exemptions across the country. Currently, 18 states allow nonmedical vaccine exemptions for either “conscientious objector” or “philosophical/personal belief” reasons. We were able to obtain information on 14 of those states.
A clear picture emerged: Vaccine exemptions are on the rise in 12 of the states we looked at. Indeed, anti-vaccine activities appear to be more of a western phenomenon, especially in the Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Oregon and Washington) and the American Southwest (Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah).
What exactly is going on in the West, where many parents shun vaccines and take their children out of vaccination programs? Researchers are still at the early stages of understanding the reasons behind the anti-vaccine movement. A couple of these states, Oklahoma and Texas, host well-organized political action committees that lobby their legislatures and even raise campaign funds for candidates to endorse anti-vaccine positions. These committees appeal to parental fears of unwarranted government interference.
What’s more, some studies suggest that vaccine refusal is linked to affluence, and possibly with affluence there is greater access to the internet. There are now hundreds of anti-vaccine websites on the internet, many of which still allege that vaccines cause autism or that autism is a form of “vaccine injury,” neither of which is true.
The anti-vaccine movement also effectively uses social media to share their message. Some studies show that anti-vaccine social media has created an “echo chamber” effect that strongly reinforces negative attitudes towards vaccines.