Although the PLoS One
survey did not ask respondents to provide justification for their positions, it is safe to presume “alternative facts” are the likely culprit. Public health experts have long lamented that the Internet—and other forms media—have breathed new life into distorted realities such as the autism/MMR link, allowing myths to live on long after they have been disproved by sound science. A documentary touting Wakefield’s work (called “Vaxxed
”) scheduled for the 2016 TriBeCa Film Festival was only pulled at the 11th hour, after a public protest by medical experts. And author d’Ancona recalls the 2007 appearance of model and broadcaster Jenny McCarthy on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” McCarthy’s son is autistic, and she pins his condition on the vaccines he received as an infant. When Winfrey asked her to provide evidence to support her theory, McCarthy replied (as quoted by d’Ancona), “My science is named Evan, and he’s at home. The University of Google is where I got my degree from.”
“Between 2000 and roughly 2008, the Somali community in Minnesota actually had some of the highest vaccination rates for 2-year-olds of any population in the state,” Michael Osterholm, PhD, MPH, Director, Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN. “[However], by about 2008, we started to see the vaccine rates drop as the word got through the Somali community that autism was linked to measles vaccination… In the years since then, Andrew Wakefield has actually been brought in several times to the Somali community here in Minnesota to actually give presentations supporting this information, [even though] his work has been retracted.”
Are Wakefield’s disciples living in an alternative universe? No, just in an age of alternative facts. Unfortunately, you don’t have to believe in these distortions of the truth to feel their effects.
Brian P. Dunleavy is a medical writer and editor based in New York. His work has appeared in numerous healthcare-related publications. He is the former editor of Infectious Disease Special Edition.
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