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.
Describing the US context he explains: “The phony thread about vaccines causing autism is still out there and it hasn’t gone away. But now piling on to that, it's taken on a political mantle. The anti-vaccine movement got adopted about 7–8 years ago, even before the pandemic, by far right extremist elements of the Republican Party.” He adds that “The anti-vaccine group started getting political action committee money and there was an expanded use of propaganda and rhetoric invoking terms like health freedom, medical freedom, and then you started see the steep rise in the number of kids not getting vaccines…because doing so became part of a new political identity.” The movement also grew a few months after mRNA vaccines became available in the COVID-19 pandemic, he notes. It became “an organised, deliberate, well financed, and predatory disinformation campaign to convince people in my State of Texas and other adjoining states…not to take a COVID-19 vaccine”, he says.
Hotez's work countering anti-science has not been risk-free. After harassment from the anti-vaccine lobby, he needs security when he speaks publicly, and has received support from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation. Despite the aggression he faces, Hotez has a calm, rational, and affable demeanour. Countering anti-science “hasn’t been fun”, he says, but it is “critically important”. In October, 2023, these efforts were recognised when he was awarded the Infectious Diseases Society of America's inaugural Anthony Fauci Courage in Leadership Award for his commitment to promoting scientific integrity and advocating for sound science. Eric Topol, Director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA, USA, describes Hotez as a “leading physician-scientist-warrior” against misinformation and disinformation in the COVID-19 pandemic and “throughout his career”. Michael Osterholm, Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, MN, USA, says: “Peter is a courageous and visionary leader in taking head on the vaccine disinformation movement. His work provides the foundation for public health response to the ever increasing challenges to turning vaccines into vaccinations.”