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.
Misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories about vaccines are key drivers of vaccine hesitancy. A repeated false claim about COVID-19 vaccines is that the vaccines cause female infertility. Dating back decades, various conspiracy theories have linked vaccination programs with infertility and thus harmed vaccination programs in Africa, Asia, and Central America, particularly against polio and tetanus. In the United States, Europe, and Australia, human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccines have been falsely blamed for infertility and primary ovarian insufficiency (POI). After distribution of COVID-19 vaccines began in December 2020, almost immediately there arose conspiracy theories claiming that these vaccines cause menstrual irregularities, miscarriages, and infertility, promoted by noted antivaccine activists Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Andrew Wakefield among others. Here we will explore the history of this antivaccine narrative, how it has been promulgated in the past and repurposed to COVID-19 vaccines, and strategies to counter it.
In 2022, RFK Jr.’s antivaccine group Children’s Health Defense released a documentary entitled “Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda” , with Kennedy serving as executive producer. Co-producers included Mary Holland, a lawyer who has long promoted the false claims that vaccines cause autism and that HPV vaccines cause infertility, and Andrew Wakefield, the UK physician who has been one of the most famous antivaccine activists in the world since he published his now-retracted case series in The Lancet in 1998 that claimed to find an association between the MMR vaccine and autistic enterocolitis, arguably the main spark behind the late 20th century resurgence of antivaccine sentiment. Infertility has been characterized as a “docuganda”; i.e., a documentary propaganda , a genre which includes prior anti-vaccine films “The Greater Good” and Andrew Wakefield’s previous directorial effort, the 2016 film “VAXXED: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe”.
Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda is is largely an updated rehash of a 1990s-era disinformation campaign that spread fear about a push to prevent neonatal tetanus in developing countries by vaccinating young women, and one of the earliest antivaccine campaigns to use the Internet as a powerful tool to spread such fear. As part of this fear-based campaign, antivaccine advocates conflated ongoing clinical trials of an experimental antifertility vaccine, which conjugated a subunit of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) hormone with diphtheria or tetanus toxoid proteins, to ongoing tetanus immunization programs led by the World Health Organization . Though there was no connection between the immunization program and the clinical trial, the confusion between the two led to distrust of the tetanus vaccines. Once such distrust spread, tetanus vaccines were tested for the presence of hCG. However, ordinary pregnancy tests were used, which were not appropriate to test for this hormone within vaccine vials, leading to false positive results and further misrepresentation of the outcome by groups opposed to the tetanus vaccine campaign. Vaccines tested by reputable laboratories did not find presence of the hormone .
52. A. Wakefield
Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda
Children’s Health Defense Films, United States (2022)
53. Jarry J. Infertility: A Diabolical Agenda Is Anti-Vaxx Sleight-of-Hand Propaganda (2022). McGill University Office for Science and Society. Accessed at https://www.mcgill.ca/oss/article/covid-19-critical-thinking-pseudoscience/infertility-diabolical-agenda-anti-vaxx-sleight-hand-propaganda on November 14, 2023.
54. J. Milstien, P.D. Griffin, J.-W. Lee
Damage to Immunization Programmes from Misinformation on Contraceptive Vaccines
Reprod Health Matters, 6 (1995), pp. 24-28