The difference between them and us

I was talking to an anti-vaccine activist the other day, and she said that scientists, doctors, and anyone else who believed in the science of vaccines were “blindly devoted to the religion of vaccines.” I almost laughed in her face, but I was trying to be civil. After all, the woman had ventured into an institution of higher knowledge to have this debate. She was like a fish out of water as it was clear that she had no formal training in science, and she admitted to those present that she knew all she needed to know through her experience of being a mother of a child with autism.

I’ve never been tossed an easier softball for me to hit out of the park, but I just sat there and listened to what she had to say. She began her tale by telling us about her “stolen” child and how that child is now 5 and starting kindergarten. (More on how weird that sounded in a little big.) According to her recollection, her child was developing perfectly normal until he got his MMR vaccine at one year of age. It took her child two months before he started walking when most kids walk at 12 months, she said. Surely, it was the MMR vaccine that caused that delay.

She repeated other things we’ve heard from anti-vaccine activists. Her child cried for days and days until she took him to the doctor. Her child didn’t look her in the eyes. Her child watches television for hours during the day and can’t fall asleep unless she gives him an iPad to play with. Oh, and her child has allergies against everything and anything that she feeds him. She now feeds him nothing but organic chicken and vegetables. Anything else and he develops nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation… Both? Yes, she said he gets both at the same time.

But her child is 5 and in kindergarten, but is somehow “stolen”? Again, all softballs, but I didn’t bite. None of us did. It wasn’t a fight we wanted to have.

She ended her presentation to us with a set of slides about the so-called “CDC Whistleblower” and the “cover-up” of data. In her conclusion, she asked us to be “skeptical” of those who are “blindly devoted to the religion of science” and to check out the information from the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccine group that wants to feed children anti-vaccine candy this Halloween. The woman then asked for any questions, and I couldn’t resist.

“Did you read the Wakefield paper from 1998?” I asked. After a brief pause, and after seeing that I pulled out the paper, she said that she did not. “In it,” I said, “the authors conclude that there is no association between autism and enterolytic colitis.” The expression on her face changed from amusement to anger in three seconds flat. I continued, “You told us not to trust those who blindly follow science, but what about those who blindly follow Andrew Wakefield’s…”

“DOCTOR Wakefield,” she interrupted.

“Andrew Wakefield’s ‘gut feelings’,” I said. “Are gut feelings better to follow than evidence?”

“Give me that,” she said as she reached for the now-retracted Wakefield paper. She scanned the paper to the part where I had highlighted the conclusion:

“We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue”

The woman exploded into a barrage of accusations about me altering the paper (denial), telling me that she hated people like me who had “taken away” her child (anger), stating that if only follow-up studies to Wakefield’s were done so we all would know the truth (they were done, and also, bargaining), and then tears started rolling down her eyes (depression).

If the words in parentheses look familiar to you, it’s because they’re 4 of the 5 stages of grief. The only stage she did not display was acceptance. The woman was quiet and sitting, holding the paper between her hands, sobbing. The host thanked her for being here and we filed out of the room.

I felt like a jackass for making a woman cry. Women crying get me upset, and I honestly wanted nothing but to hug the woman and tell her that everything was going to be okay. But I think she would have completely snapped.

The difference between them and us, people who believe in anti-vaccine theories and us who don’t, is that we take the time to review the literature. We cross all the T’s and dot all the I’s. Because, in our world, being proven wrong or having someone find out that we lied or altered the data is the equivalent of social death. Just ask Wakefield, and, now, BS Hooker. They are pariahs who have either altered the data or failed to present it in an honest fashion. They may even be lying when they say that there was a “cover up” by CDC. Mark my words when I tell you that neither will ever be taken seriously by people who make policy decisions about vaccines and/or autism. And the people who follow them? Those people will never be taken seriously and be challenged on their assertions because they don’t read the papers, don’t do the homework, and don’t take the tests.

I’d like to thank the person who organized that meeting. They went to great lengths to get the woman in question to give the presentation to a group of us in northern Virginia. And that woman, if you are reading this, please know that we did not intend to deceive you into looking so foolish. You did that all on your own, and I hope you see things for what they are and not what groups like NVIC want you to believe.

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10 thoughts on “The difference between them and us

    • I did. Thank you very much for writing that. I have some thoughts based on private emails with Dr. Doshi, so I’ll keep those to myself. Let’s just say the very much like yours.

  1. Seriously? Walking at 14 months instead of 12 months? My first was walking by 12 months, but everywhere I looked and everyone I talked to told me that many of their kids didn’t walk until closer to 15 months. I don’t even.

    I’m shocked at the number of people who either don’t know who Wakefield is (I’ve asked that question to every AVer I’ve met IRL and none has known who I’m talking about) or have no idea what his paper was about. I know I shouldn’t be shocked, but I am. I mean, if you’re going to be that devoted to an idea, shouldn’t you know who the pillars are?

    • It was clear throughout her talk that she wanted her child to be “normal” in every way. When she said he was 5 and in kindergarten, we all started to look at each other and wonder what her idea of “developmentally delayed” was.

  2. I wouldn’t feel bad about her crying; she did that to herself. Confronting true believers, especially in the venue that you did is necessary. I doubt she’ll change her mind but who knows if a seed was planted to eventually get her out of that awful mind set.

  3. It’s totally fine to walk at 14 months–that is not a developmental delay. I would have called her on it at that point.

    It’s rare for an anti-vaccinationist to change their opinion on vaccines. I used to try and empathize with them, but no longer do. They won’t change their mind in a debate. All they do is get angry and lose their temper–and, as you’ve noted, that accomplishes little–with the exception that perhaps a vaccine-hesitant person watching the exchange may realize how truly disconnected from reality AVers are.

  4. “According to her recollection, her child was developing perfectly normal until he got his MMR vaccine at one year of age. It took her child two months before he started walking when most kids walk at 12 months, she said. Surely, it was the MMR vaccine that caused that delay.”

    I’m sorry, but that timeline seems to be a bit off. If her child did get the vaccine exactly at twelve months, but walked at fourteen months. There is great deal of variability in walking ability. Yes, my actually disabled son took his first steps when he was one year old. But my perfectly normal young son was still crawling at his first birthday, and did really start walking until he was about fifteen months old.

    Compare the two young men:
    — oldest could not speak at age three, started special ed. at age three, had special ed. education through to graduation. Spent seven years to get an community college associates degree. He is unemployed.
    — younger had minor language delay, but with some language therapy entered regular kindergarten with “low average” language skills, was an honor student in high school taking both years of AP Calculus, just graduated from college with a math degree and landed a job within three weeks with a Fortune 500 company as a system analyst.

    My very annoying youngest started walking at nine months, something you don’t want to happen! It is no good to have a child more mobile than their “common sense” intellectual development.

    I am also shocked that she had never read Wakefield’s retracted paper. Plus she may be causing more harm to her child by restricting his diet. Kids need calories that include fat for brain development (which is why they say not to give toddlers skim milk).

    Did you ask her if her child had been in special ed. preschool with an IEP? Or any other early neurodevelopmental therapy? (harking back to the one year I was hauling both boys to a total of five speech/language therapy sessions: two private for older at the Scottish Rite Center for Childhood Language Disorders, two for younger child at the university’s speech clinic where with student therapists, and one at the school… he was granted therapy with an IEP but not placement in a special ed. preschool)

    • I didn’t ask her anything beyond our little exchange. I was all worked up, and I’m sure she was too. One wrong move and she gig would have been up.

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