The recent resurgence of preventable disease outbreaks has been influenced by the growing anti-vaccination movement. One of the most popular reasons behind anti-vaccination, its relationship to autism, is influenced by a societal autism phobia and the belief that the disorder is worse than a death-inducing pandemic.
Recently, the revival of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States has mounted to proportions that haven’t been seen in more than a decade. Specifically, cases of measles, the mumps and the whooping cough are on the rise. In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 695 cases of measles outbreaks from 22 states, the highest number reported since its 2000 eradication in the United States. The outbreaks throughout New York state are among the largest and longest-lasting reported since the measles elimination. Generally, the introduction of diseases in communities with a highly vaccinated population pose little threat. Yet, when a disease is introduced in areas where few people possess vaccinations, the action constitutes an enormous effect on the whole community. The decision to refuse vaccination or not vaccinate enough decreases both an individual’s immunity to preventable diseases and weakens herd immunity in their communities, threatening the lives of those around them.
The recent rise in outbreaks is tied to an overall decline in vaccination rates. While immunizations are widely regarded as safe and effective ways to promote health and prevent the spread of diseases, the consensus is not unanimous. The polarization concerning vaccination beliefs has become strongly influenced by a growing anti-vaccination movement. Although not a new ideological campaign, its magnitude in present day positions it as a global and convoluted beast. Similar to many other societal movements in the 21st century, the anti-vaccination crusade pulls much of its power from social media. Numerous and diverse social media platforms allow anti-vaxxers to prolifically spread and amplify their rhetoric directly into mainstream focus.
Fueled by safety concerns, political and religious beliefs and a substantial amount of misinformation, anti-vaxxers cite a wide range of reasons motivating their decisions not to vaccinate themselves or their children. Arguably the most popular of these is the belief in the connection between vaccination and autism. Despite having been disproved countless times, the argument that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causes autism is alive and well. Among the incomprehensible amount of outspoken celebrity anti-vaxxers are actors Jenny McCarthy and Robert DeNiro, who are both parents of autistic children. They perpetuate misconceptions by broadcasting their beliefs that vaccinations contributed to their childrens’ disorders. U.S. President Donald Trump has also turned to Twitter on numerous occasions throughout the years to express his belief in this false correlation. This kind of fearmongering of misinformation aided by social media only results in furthering negative stereotypes associated with autism spectrum disorders.
As support for the connection between autism and vaccinations retains its societal foothold despite evidence otherwise, it’s clear that the deeper reasoning behind such a stance is simply inscrutable autism phobia. Condemning immunization due to the belief that it’ll completely alter someone’s DNA such that it results in autism is a baffling enough thought on its own. Yet underlining their vaccine condemnation is the condemnation of autism itself. It paints autism as some devastating curse to individuals and society, as the most serious trauma a parent could ever endure. On top of all the stereotypes already associated with autism, now people with autism must also bear the categorization of “vaccine-injured.” All of the resources that went toward investigating whether or not vaccines cause autism took away from the otherwise important direction of research figuring out ways to improve the lives of autistic people and their families. This dehumanizing discourse stands as an obstacle to a powerful embracement of neurodiversity, as well as human diversity in general. It takes the rightful position of autistic people from center stage of the conversation and places them on the back burner in a marginalized position. It further reveals the backward viewpoint that the actuality of a person with autism is worse than a potentially fatal, yet completely preventable, pandemic.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a sophomore majoring in political science.