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.
Unfortunately, Republican politicians and conservative media figures are increasingly joining up with the anti-vaxxers. Even before COVID, they were fighting vaccine mandates and other public health measures.
I am both a vaccine scientist and parent of four adult children, including Rachel who has autism and intellectual disabilities. My book, Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, detailed and summarized the evidence showing conclusively that there is no vaccine–autism link, while offering an alternative narrative: through whole-exome genomic sequencing, Rachel’s autism gene was identified and compared with others like it.12 The backlash from antivaccine groups was rapid and severe. They launched a media campaign against me on the internet, encouraging threats through email and social media. Since I make no secret that I am Jewish, I eventually experienced first-hand multiple anti-Semitic statements and threats online (see Figure 1 for examples). Two themes predominated. First there were overt threats or expressions of hatred because I was Jewish. More frequently, however, there were hurtful attempts to accuse me (as well as my colleagues who vaccinate) of perpetrating crimes equivalent to those committed during the Holocaust. Antivaxxerslove their Nazi analogies, and I was ultimately compared to the infamous Dr Mengele because I am a scientist who conducts vaccine research, and because I “experimented” on my daughter by ensuring that she still received her recommended vaccinations despite an autism diagnosis. Later emails appearing in my inbox openly expressed their desire to see me hang after some sort of new-age Nuremberg tribunal (Figure 1, top left). I was not alone—a pattern emerged in which Jewish physicians and scientists who conducted vaccine research or advocated for vaccinations were singled out and targeted with Nazi imagery.13,14
Nevertheless, our scientific community’s efforts to debunk vaccine and autism assertions may have had some beneficial impact, at times even taking some of the wind out of the sails of the antivaccine movement. But this also meant that, to continue, antivaccine groups needed a new angle, and they found it through extremist or libertarian politics. By invoking health freedom or medical freedom propaganda they found a political home and donor support.15 Although it may have begun in California with the passage of Senate Bill 277,15 which outlawed exemptions to school immunization mandates, health freedom propaganda found its greatest welcome in Texas where an antivaccine political action committee (PAC) formed, and vaccine exemptions escalated.16 In time, health freedom and antivaccine sentiments were embraced by many mainstream conservatives or their elected leaders.
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4. Wiesel E. A Jew Today. New York, NY, USA: VintageBooks; 1978.
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11. Olive JK, Hotez PJ, Damania A, Nolan MS. The state of the antivaccine movement in the United States: a focused examination of nonmedical exemptions in states and counties. PLoS Med 2018;15:e1002578. CrossRef. Erratum in: PLoS Med 2018;15:e1002616. CrossRef
12. Hotez PJ, Caplan AL. Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2018. CrossRef
13. Orac. Can antivaccinationists knock it off with the autism Holocaust analogies already? Respectful Insolence. May 30, 2013. Available at: https://www.respectfulinsolence.com/2013/05/30/can-antivaccinationists-knock-it-off-with-the-autismholocaust-analogies/ (accessed October 1, 2022).
14. Orac. Holocaust misappropriation by antivaxxers: a form of Holocaust denial. Respectful Insolence. June 2, 2021. Available at: https://www.respectful insolence.com/2021/06/02/holocaustmisappropriation-by-antivaxxers/ (accessed October 1, 2022).
15. Hotez PJ. America’s deadly flirtation with antiscience and the medical freedom movement. J Clin Invest 2021;131:e149072. CrossRef
16. Hotez PJ. Texas and its measles epidemics. PLoS Med 2016;13:e1002153. CrossRef