Matthew Rozsa at Salon:
In The Politics of Autism, I analyze the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. This bogus idea can hurt people by allowing diseases to spread. And among those diseases could be COVID-19.
Antivaxxers are sometimes violent, often abusive, and always wrong. The ur-antivaxxer of our time is the disgraced Andrew Wakefield.
A direct line can be drawn between Wakefield's assertions about MMR vaccines and the rhetoric about COVID-19 vaccines (an issue where Wakefield is also anti-science, but has not emerged as a prominent voice). Studies have repeatedly found that general vaccine skepticism increased as a direct result of Wakefield's study; just last August, researchers writing for the scientific journal PLOS One again confirmed that vaccine hesitancy went up after Wakefield's paper came out.
"The Wakefield et al paper arrived at an interesting time in history," epidemiologist Dr. René Najera told Salon in June. "The internet was growing. The 24-hour news cycle was growing. People like Jenny McCarthy and others were becoming 'influencers.' His paper only brought to the forefront fears that many parents had: that vaccines caused developmental delays. Before 1998, you didn't have the internet as a bullhorn, or time to interview or showcase celebrities."
While hesitation about vaccines existed before Wakefield, the British doctor made it possible for misinformation to do something that had previously only occurred in the world of epidemics: achieving virality. Even after Wakefield himself sank into obscurity, other anti-vaccine activists emerged to take his place. By normalizing the practice of questioning vaccines without regard to reliable medical knowledge, they laid the foundations for the denial of the COVID-19 vaccines that is so prevalent today.
Wakefield may not be one of the so-called "disinformation dozen" — social media voices today who create two-thirds of all anti-vaxxer content online — but he is their forefather. Without Wakefield, it is hard to imagine that the anti-vaccination movement would have been so loud before the pandemic that it would metastasize during it, to the extent that millions of Americans now view opposing vaccines as a crucial part of their identity.