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Parents Who Fear Vaccines Are Not Crazy

By Heather Turgeon |

Vaccine side effects and autism

Our longstanding fear of vaccines

Parents who are suspicious of vaccines are not nuts, says professor Michael Willrich in his op-ed Friday in The New York Times.

Yes, the current round of fear and apprehension towards vaccines was born from bad science and possibly even deception, mixed with the power of the Internet to feed misinformation and spread anxiety.

Remember that earlier this month Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine (whose paper was already retracted and medical license pulled) was accused of not just sup-par research, but deliberate fraud.

So we know the science behind vaccines and developmental delays never existed. Yet still, many parents worry, delay, and opt-out altogether. Doctors and even other parents get annoyed and write them off as crazy and irrational.

But actually, the fear of vaccines is not new, and it comes from a valid place:

Willrich writes that the public had mixed feelings about immunizations from the start. People saw mandatory vaccines as a violation of liberty, minority groups were wary of the intentions of an all-white medical profession, and there were no safety regulations in place. In fact,

Public confidence in vaccines collapsed in the fall of 1901 when newspapers linked the deaths of nine schoolchildren in Camden, N.J., to a commercial vaccine allegedly tainted with tetanus. In St. Louis, 13 more schoolchildren died of tetanus after treatment with the diphtheria antitoxin. It was decades before many Americans were willing to submit to public vaccination campaigns again.

The year after that, the first safety regulations went into effect. And public health officials in the 20th century went on campaigns around the country, talking to people about their fears, presenting the data, and telling them about the horrors of diseases like smallpox. We know that through the 19th and 20th century vaccines went on to be massively successful at combating infectious disease.

Now, even with extensive safety regulations, parents are still skeptical. And Willrich’s point is that we should address it the way we did in earlier times — not by rolling our eyes in frustration, but by relentlessly presenting the facts.

This makes good sense to me. It’s not Andrew Wakefield’s fault that immunization rates have dropped. He only played into our already complicated relationship with vaccines. The only thing to do from here is to keep listening and talking respectfully to parents, armed with data. Because even though Wakefield is down for the count, someone else is surely waiting in the wings to take his place.

Image: flickr

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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36 thoughts on “Parents Who Fear Vaccines Are Not Crazy

  1. goddess says:

    Or some of them held their brain damaged children as they died after an adverse reaction to the whole cell DTP vaccine.

  2. Steve Silberman says:

    “It’s not Bernie Madoff’s fault that those formerly rich old ladies are now penniless. He only played into their complicated relationship with greed.”

  3. andrea says:

    There is a very simple remedy. Let’s compare a whole bunch of vaccinated children with a whole bunch of unvaccinated children, and see what, if any difference exists in the rates of autism between the two groups. It DOES not have to be a double blind study to be good science. To my knowledge, no one ever randomly assigned a group of people to smoke for fifty years, and then checked to see if anyone developed lung cancer. Researchers looked at people who smoked. So why can’t we look at unvaccinated children and check their rates of austism/allergies/asthma/neurological disorders?

    If vaccines do NOT cause autism, then the rates of autism should be identical. The Oregon phone survey had some startling results- autism rates between vaccinated and unvaccinated children were dramatically different. Guess which group had lower rates of autism?

    Until the CDC compares the two groups, my children will remain on a delayed (very delayed) schedule.

  4. jess says:

    I also would love to see a large LONG-TERM study comparing vaxed and unvaxed kids. Not just looking at autism either (!), but looking at multiple developmental factors as well as various disorders (e.g. auto-immune, since that’s been a question for some of those who are questioning the current vax schedule). I recall reading that one of those Cochrane Reports on vaxes found that there was a somewhat higher incidence of tics and language delay in kids who had received thimerosal-containing vaxes…(my memory is a bit hazy on this). I know thimerosal is no longer in many vaxes, but I do have concerns about the aluminum and the lack of studies that have looked at the long-term safety of young children receiving so much *injected* aluminum (since, presumably, the body deals with injected aluminum differently than it does ingested aluminum).

  5. Aaron says:

    Your language delays comment reminded me of this one study that was recently done on macaque monkeys:

    Of course, this wasn’t language that was slowed down by the introduction of the vaccine, but instead, the monkeys reflexive response.

  6. MikeMa says:

    Vax vs no vax is unethical. Study would never get approval. Amish never vaccinate and there are autistic Amish. That is about as close as you will get to the study you want. Most hardcore anti-vax types would argue the evidence regardless. Moving the goalposts is standard practice.

  7. Lisa says:


    IF vaccines do NOT cause autism, then you would expect to see no difference in rates of autism identification UNLESS something else was happening.

    Autism identification is inconsistent across the country and across time; our definition has changed and the process has changed. Kids who do NOT meet criteria for autism as described in DSM-IV but could be stretched to fit PDD-NOS or Asbergers are identified as having Austim Spectrum Disorder despite the fact that it is the other way around in the DSM. Autism, Aspergers, PDD-NOS all fall under the umbrella (at least in the DSM) of PDD (pervasive development disorder).

    Many of the kids who were labeled ADD or ADHD 10 years ago would be labeled “on the spectrum” now. In fact, any boy who has a language delay, or is socially awkward, or is a little weird is often described as being “on the spectrum”; if he (and it is almost always a he, I’ve only ever had one girl identified with ASD) is not performing up to ability, he will be evaluated and typically found to be ‘on the spectrum’.

    Why? Because schools are allowed by federal law to label a child with autism even if a medical doctor has ruled it out. I know of no other condition for which that is true and because it is easier to get funding for autism than many other conditions.

  8. ann russell says:

    I am very frustrated by what is taking place
    abot this issue. The anti-vaxxers have it all their way, producing study after study showing negative results from baby’s vaccines. I don’t understand why the pharmaceutical companies who make the vaccines and who have run extensive safety studies and the CDC and the American Society of Pediatrics and all the other interested bodies with numerous studies which prove that vaccines are safe. This would solve the problem once and for all.

  9. Linda, the original one says:

    They’ve already done that study. The rates of autism in vaccinated and unvaccinated children are the same, I’ll bet it’s been 8 or so years since I read about that one. It should be fairly easy to google.

  10. Marj says:

    Historically we have had complex relationships with tomatoes as well (believed to be poisonous for hundreds of years). That is not a valid argument for people’s opinion’s being valid. I had a co-worker in my twenties who was a flat-earther. Sure, historical opinion will back him up, but he’s still a nutbar.

  11. bettywu says:

    What Marj said. I take issue with the characterization throughout your piece that these fears are “valid” when you admit They. Aren’t.

    Here’s a lovely, contemporary parallel. Check out how many people in South Korea believe that having a fan in the house will kill you. They’re really afraid. But they’re really wrong.

    Stop feeding the beast.

    And as for those who pull out the occasional death from vaccines? yes, that’s horrible. But a couple of kids die every year when they get trapped in their seat belts. But you can bet your…my kids are still wearing them.

  12. bettywu says:

    Wait. It occurs to me that the seat belt analogy is woefully inadequate because when you decide it’s more natural to let your kid ride in the car without a seat belt (I mean, seriously, you know that Big Auto is hushing up all the seat belt problems don’t you???) it doesn’t put my kids at risk of dying from the measles.

  13. Zed says:

    Linda, you are mistaken. The only “comparison” studies that have been undertaken involve children who were fully vaccinated vs. those who were not. In other words, it is comparable to looking at people who smoke two packs of cigarettes/day vs. those who only smoke one pack a day in the effort to determine whether smoking has negative effects on their health.

    There has NEVER been a study comparing the health of vaccinated vs. NEVER-vaccinated individuals. The survey conducted by Generation Rescue did, indeed, reveal stark differences between those disparate groups, and those results are the very reason that no agencies, pharmaceutical manufacturers or medical trade unions wish to conduct a large-scale study comparing the health of these groups. The results would be both horrifying and enlightening.

    Follow The Money.

  14. goddess says:

    @bettywu: If you vaccinate your children and believe in their efficacy, why would your children die of measles?

  15. Linda, the original one says:

    Um, nope. And “Generation Rescue”. Seriously, LOLOLOLOLOL. And you guys wonder why you come across as nutty?

  16. bettywu says:

    Actually Zed, the reason why no large scale study of this kind has been undertaken is because it would outrageously unethical to endanger that many children.

    Goddess, a vaccine is not a suit of armor. It offers protection, but not complete invulnerability without herd immunity keeping the viruses at bay. Also, while little kid is still little she is not fully protected yet until she’s had the full compliment of shots. But you’re right, the likelihood of her dying at this point is low. Can’t say the same for a baby who hasn’t had any shots yet.

  17. Zed says:

    @bettywu: There is a generous pool of INTENTIONALLY unvaccinated children whose parents would be delighted to participate in this study. Tell them where to show up and you will be gobsmacked at how many there are. Please explain what exactly would be unethical about that.
    @mikema: Moving the goalposts? Can you please direct us to the safety studies that have been done to demonstrate the outcomes of administering multiple vaccines simultaneously? I’ll wait. Oh, and the long-term studies that determine whether fully vaccinated children have higher rates of chronic illness than those who are not fully vaccinated? Astonishingly….they DO NOT exist. Despite this glaring absence of “science” on the matter, doctors continue to administer them in this fashion, assuring parents that these studies have been done, and that this practice is “perfectly safe.” Never mind the Billions of dollars that have been paid out for vaccine injuries–apparently children damaged by vaccines are considered “unavoidable damage”. Really?

  18. goddess says:

    @bettywu: And yet a DTP vaccine gave our eldest an encephalitic type of adverse reaction that gave him severe cortical atrophy, spastic quadriparetic, inambulatory, nonverbal and dead due to complications of that damage by the age of 6.
    Though our next 3 children DID receive their shots to date (will NOT be having Gardisil tho), I cannot fault any parent for declining the vaccine after going through what our family went through. And any pediatrician worth his or her salt WILL medically exempt them if they so choose.

  19. Stat Girl says:

    The idea that an intentionally unvaccinated population does not have a bias of some other type is incorrect. The scientific method is pretty clear about valid testing. Unethical to bring a cadre of unvaccinated children (for whom the decision was made BY THE PARENTS) all into one room where they can share all kinds of deadly diseases seems pretty atrocious to me. Vaccine fears are irrational. People who rely on the herd immunity are free loaders, pure and simple. You are more likely to be injured in the car on the way to get the vaccine than you are getting a vaccine. The NYT op-ed piece is apologist and irresponsible.

  20. goddess says:

    Yeah, well we beat those odds Stat Girl- and I have sympathy and understanding for those who have done so as well. When you hold your dying child, maybe you’ll open your mind.

  21. Zed says:

    I have some bad news for you, StatGirl. Your children (assuming you have children) are attending school every day with unvaccinated children. What’s “irrational” is being afraid of them since you assume vaccines are effective. You might also need to know that these children of like-minded parents spend a good bit of time with one another. Without consequence, without DEADLY disease. The troubling assumption that vaccines are the only, the best, the most practical way of preventing death from communicable disease is the problem. As was articulated earlier, the studies HAVE NOT been done to determine whether this is actually TRUE. What part of that is hard to comprehend? Is it more disturbing that the science is sorely lacking, or that your doctor might not understand this problem?

  22. Linda, the original one says:

    I don’t see any point in bothering to argue with the anti-vax crowd because it doesn’t matter how much rational, factual information is put forward. It’s like trying to reason with members of a cult.

  23. Zed says:

    “Cults” arise when a group of individuals “believe” something, collectively. The majority of parents whose children have been injured (or killed) as a result of vaccination once “believed” that vaccines were safe, effective and a part of responsible parenting. They believed their doctors, the governmental agencies, the manufacturers, and their peers. What they came to realize was that their “faith” was based on very shaky ground, and that the very authorities they relied on for protection were woefully under-informed regarding the safety, efficacy and logic behind a near-universal recommendation. It was at that point they realized that “faith”–not knowledge–was the basis for vaccinating newborns, children, adolescents and adults in an utterly wreckless manner. As they dug deeper, they realized there were no double-blind, controlled studies, no follow-up safety studies, no testing on multiple administrations, and no pre-vaccination testing to determine which individuals might be harmed. THERE STILL AREN’T. If there is a ‘cult’ to be seen, it is the millions whose blind faith in this practice have not yet been tested.
    Simply bring the studies forth. The argument will stop when you realize they do not exist.

  24. Lisa says:

    Andrea, Denmark did the study you just requested. They looked at the medical records of ALL Danish children and compared autism rates in children vaccinated and children unvaccinated. Interestingly enough, there was a higher number of autistic kids in the unvaccinated group than in the vaccinated group.

    Vaccines have been saving lives for 100 years. I work with children from Africa where vaccines are not readily available. I have seen little girls struggle to walk because their limbs are misshapen by polio. I have seen the scars of measles. I have heard about the deaths of their children from diseases that could have been prevented, had vaccines been available to them. You think we Americans are so “advanced” compared to African villages? You are listening to the “witch doctors” telling you vaccines are bad. Listen to the educated researchers. Science has told us time and time again that the MMR vaccine cannot cause autism and that it is impossible for the flu vaccine to cause flu. Maybe we should stop wasting money trying to prove these points yet again, and actually fund studies that may find what actually does cause autism. There is preliminary research showing a genetic component to autism. How about we pursue that and stop putting our children at needless risk based on faulty information? We are currently experiencing a pertussis epidemic because of unvaccinated children. England is experiencing a measles epidemic because of unvaccinated children. How many more children have to die? You have been duped. Open your eyes, vaccinate your children, and save their lives.

  25. Linda, the original one says:

    @Lisa, thank you.

    @Zed and the rest, like I said, no point in attempting to reason with the cultists, so I won’t.

  26. Lisa says:

    For people interested in legitimate science, check out Not only is there authentic, science based information, but you can see pictures of what these vaccine preventable diseases actually look like. Because of the SUCCESS of vaccines, we Americans no longer know the pain and suffering these diseases cause. Take a look. Do you really want children to suffer through these diseases? Do you really want to risk their lives and wellbeing?

    Second, early medical research is showing a link between vitamin D deficiency and symptoms that look like autism. Same with gluten allergies. The gluten reaction causes neurological symptoms that mimic autism. Remove the gluten, the symptoms go away. Provide adequate vitamin D, the symptoms go away. Simple math, really, and vaccines are not a part of the equation.

  27. Zed says:

    Lisa, the Danish study you refer to was a comparison between fully vaccinated and partially-vaccinated children. There were NO Never-Vaccinated children in this study. Furthemore, the Danish researcher associated with their ‘studies’ is on the lam, after absconding with $2 million in research dollars.
    Secondly, the epidemiologists have determined that the California whooping cough ‘epidemic’ resulted in a population which was 80% fully vaccinated. Their rationale involves the possible loss of artificially-derived immunity and/or mutations in the pertussis bacteria. In either case, the unvaccinated population was not found to be the source of this outbreak.
    Third, there was actually an uptick in MMR vaccination following Dr. Wakefield’s published study. Measles rates in the UK were not a result of his findings.

    1) double-blind, placebo-controlled studies for ANY vaccines
    2) long-term studies regarding the health parameters of vaccinated children
    3) safety studies involving administration of multiple vaccines, simultaneously
    Please Post them Here for All to See. I have been looking for these studies for more than a decade. Good luck and I’ll wait. Because I refuse to take it on “faith” that vaccines are safe and without long-term consequence. That’s what cultists do. And I know many damaged children whose parents would love to see those studies.

  28. Linda, the original one says:

    @Zeb, instead, why don’t you provide any legitimate studies that show any link at all between autism and vaccination? You can’t because they plain out don’t exist. It amazes me that instead of being angry that fraud was perpetrated and research dollars funneled in to nothing due to a scam, you’ll still stick to your unsound beliefs. That’s the very definition of a cult. And, BTW, it actually shows a real lack of understanding about the way the scientific process works to even expect or request proof that something *doesn’t* exist. At what point in school did your scientific education conclude?

  29. Zed says:

    I’m not attempting to prove a negative. I’m simply asking for ANYone to produce the studies I’ve mentioned. As always, SILENCE.
    But I’m glad you asked, Linda. Here are the studies you requested.

  30. Zed says:

    Oh, and one more thing: I’m not a scientist. But I am a doctor. So I guess you’d say my scientific education concluded after 20 years of formal education.

    How about you?

  31. Zed says:

    My post which provided the information you requested has disappeared. I will submit it once more. It contains approximately 34 studies. Glad you asked.

  32. Snarky Mama says:

    From Neil deGrasse Tyson (my favorite astrophysicist): “Skeptic’s credo: You’re entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”

  33. Zed says:

    @Snarky: Not sure who that comment was directed toward, but I certainly agree. I have asked for ANYone to point us to studies that substantiate the safety of multiple vaccine administration, double-blind placebo studies, long-term outcome studies of vaccinated vs. never-vaccinated and so far (as always), Silence.
    In return, I have provided dozens of studies (that were suggested didn’t even exist) that link vaccines and autism. In this arena alone, which side are the facts stacked on? I’m not engaging in this discussion to be contentious. I’m simply trying to illustrate that the blind faith used to accept the safety and efficacy of an out-of-control vaccine program is not based in science. I only hope that you don’t have to discover this the way that millions of parents have, by looking into the vacant stare of your once-normal child. I know these children. I work with them every day. It is the most frightening, painful, and Avoidable scourge the world has ever known. Doctors, come out of the shadows. If enough of us have the courage to do so, we cannot be singled out and castrated the way Andrew Wakefield has been. I’m “out” in my own community, and the support is enormous.

  34. Linda, the original one says:

    @Zeb, first of all, if you actually are any sort of medical professional, you’re not a very *good* one. Please *out* yourself for all of us so we’re able to avoid you.

    Secondly of all, I asked for *legitimate* studies, of which there are none.

    Third of all:

    And finally, it’s been annoying as always. Enjoy your cult.

  35. Zed says:

    (Linda, it’s ZeD, not ZeB. Way to advance the discussion.)
    You might want to reflect on why you have such hostility toward austistic children and those who are helping recover them. Oh, and I didn’t click on the link you posted, because it’s obvious you didn’t click on the ones I provided. But we do agree on one thing: it’s annoying to attempt a rational discussion with those who believe they already know everything. Mouth open–mind shut. How sad.

  36. Melody says:

    Did anyone really read this article? What the author is trying to say is that anti-vaccinators initially have good reason to fear vaccines. They’re constantly being bombarded with skewed facts, scare-tactics and acedotal evidence that would seeminginly prove that vaccine science is skeptical and dangerous.

    Willrich says in his original artical that “I think that one of the lessons for today is, rather than to simply be dismissive, to try to understand where these concerns are coming from and how public health officials and doctors can bridge the gap more effectively between scientific knowledge and popular belief.”
    Pro-vaccinators have to be be clearer and louder in their stance if their want to persuade parents to vaccinate and protect their children.

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