Why the Myth that Vaccines Cause Autism Survives

Friday, May 11, 2012


Scientists have firmly established that childhood vaccines do not cause autism, but many people still choose not to vaccinate their kids. Writer Seth Mnookin talks to Brooke about why vaccinations are still down, two years after an investigation that completely discredited the anti-vaccine movement's strongest study. 


Seth Mnookin

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [29]

Angi from St. Paul MN

As a long time listener to your show, I was frankly shocked by this piece. I sat at the kitchen table, stunned. Not only did you miss the point, you essentially called those on the wrong side of the argument idiots. Good work. As many people here have shared, the grey area and nuances of this vaccine debate are not of interest to "journalists" like you - and that is the real problem. Have you looked at the US Vaccine court data? http://www.uscfc.uscourts.gov/reports-statistics Why can't we be pro-vaccine and still want clean, effective drugs given by way of a protocol that helps insure safety--especially for babies? Even many people whose children have been significantly been irreparably damaged by vaccines are not anti-vaccine but want safer vaccines. My only hope is that this poorly handled controversy brings more data on both sides to light.

Feb. 10 2015 03:48 PM
CS from New England

anonme and JN from Manhattan- There is no sound scientific rationale to justify the idea that vaccines cause autism or related disorders. The one study that made such claims only involved 12 patients and has been proven to have been completely fabricated. In 2013, the CDC published the results of a study of over 1000 patients and found no link. http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2013/03/29/vaccine-autism-connection-debunked-again/
This country needs to wake up and respect scientific professionals. As with the climate change debate, the refrain of "I'm not a scientist but" seems to justify anyone's opinion as factual. There really are no other professions where experts with years of training would be seen as so dubious. But I guess playboy centerfolds make for more interesting media coverage.

Feb. 09 2015 12:17 PM
JN from Manhattan

Why was there no mention of the numerous anecdotal stories from parents who noticed a distinct difference in their children's health after vaccinations? These are parents who BELIEVED in vaccinations, so they have no reason to lie. My second point is one that was mentioned previously. Even if a vaccination in a petri dish can be proven to not cause autism, what about those children with certain biological factors who do become autistic after being vaccinated? In that case, the issue isn't black and white. This "gray area" needs to be investigated.

Feb. 07 2015 07:44 AM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

You may find articles in these two programmes interesting:

(last piece is about how to tell if a science story is likely to be wrong)

(among other things it looks at what Australia is doing to combat a poor take up rate of vaccines)

Oct. 19 2013 06:57 AM
jim from texas

using human DNA to culture vaccines such as myeric pharms. did is unexceptable,(this came from an ex-pharm. employee) but our government protected them (Federal courts ruled vaccine manf. were immune to prosecution)Maybe our government participated more than we know.

Jan. 08 2013 11:42 PM
nick from why my location?


this is it, im done with the gov.

Nov. 29 2012 08:23 AM
ddb123 from NYC

There will never be a resolution to this question and their will never be a safe vaccine. To the individual who mentioned the Simps(on)wood transcripts. Have you read them? They are public record and do not say that thimerosal or any other preservative causes autism so whose blog or Rolling Stone article did you believe? There are several on point things here though with regards to conspiracy theories. First the guy who said big pharma deserves it is right. Because of their conduct on numerous occasions they like all large corporations are guilty until proven innocent because of their own actions. The concept of grey is too much for most people who prefer black or white. You can't be bad and do good things too and vice versa.
Next the comment about holding a limp vaccine damaged child is spot on as well. What normal human being could help but side with and pity the plight of the parents and child. What normal human being who has a 12 month old child who is developing normally and gets the vaccine only to become autistic 3 months later would not blame the vaccine. Even though autism is a developmental disorder usually occurring between 12 and 36 months no one is going to believe that child was not made autistic by the vaccine. No one is going to care that thimerosal was in high volume use since the 1930's decades before the autism epidemic. No one especially not parents or friends of parents who have an autistic child is going to believe their child would have had autism anyway. No one is going to believe that even though thimerosal has been for the most part removed from vaccines for 8 years and we should now be seeing a decrease in the diagnosis and are not we might have missed the boat.No one is going to believe that the epidemic of autism is fueled by far broader diagnostic criteria, better education of parents and money and support for parents and schools who deal with children with the diagnosis. Choose any vaccine/preservative you like and you will still have devasted families facing limp damaged children. And no one facing that is going to believe you even if in the long run it is a detriment to future generations. So at the moment no vaccine is safe and its unlikely there will ever be any.
I suggest we stop vaccines and see what happens. When you hold a non vaccinated limp child who will NEVER return to any function because of measles encephalitis as I have, you still won't believe. When all the braces and boob jobs and iphones and dermatology visits on the planet won't fix the small pox scars on your child's face you still won't believe. A safe vaccine that will be accepted as safe will never occur unless it uses a "natural preservative"> I suggest we use Stevia. When the FDA approved it as safe using the same criteria as Nutrasweet and Saccharin no one batted an eye brow.

Nov. 21 2012 08:27 PM

These studies claimed to dismiss the vaccines from causing autism are falsified. Simpswood Transcripts reveal that they know vaccines cause damage. Disease prevention doesn't come in a needle. It comes from proper diet and hygiene in a society. Not to mention some of the vaccines are actually causing disease (like polio and flu)

Vaccination is down because parents are wise to the lies that are being sold. When you have a child get DTaP vaccine and start seizing within hours and then they never are the same again.....you can't pass that up as a coincidence.

Sep. 30 2012 06:00 PM
Hen from Portland, Oregon.

While I agree with many here that OTM could have used more sources or provided a broader perspective to their coverage of a really difficult topic, my primarily issue has been their lack of sensitivity to families dealing with an exhausting, frustrating, and financially-draining disorder, one which might be becoming an epidemic. According to the CDC, 1 in 88 kids has autism in the US now, and I would have expected OTM to have at least recognized - whatever the cause - just how alarming that statistic is and how important it is that we all work to find the real causes whatever they may be.

May. 24 2012 01:36 AM
Hoover P.

From what I understand, there might be a more subtle or nuanced take on the autism/vaccine issue, and I wish On the Media had discussed it. Specifically, I'm referencing the Hannah Poling case, in which the government conceded a link between vaccines and autism for the first time. The issue in the Poling case was not that the vaccines caused autism, but that Hannah's body's reaction to the vaccines combined with a mitochondrial disorder she already had led to autism. There needs to be a LOT more research here for sure (especially with 1 in 88 kids now affected by autism - according to the CDC), but I think OTM could have provided a broader take on the issues.

May. 24 2012 01:25 AM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

I believe that the pharmaceutical industry has only itself to blame. There have been so many times when the results of trials of medicines have been surpressed, fudged, etc, that people just don't believe them any more (even if the facts are on their side).

If the pharmaceutical industry had always acted in the spirit of the law and been open about controversial/negative results more people would be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Given recent drug scandals, the industry has a lot of work to do before it regains the trust of the public.

May. 20 2012 04:36 AM
Ann Myhre from Oslo, Norway

Sorry if my English is somewhat broken, it's not my native tongue.

As a nurse, and interested in this field, vaccinations, I have heard a lot of similar articles the last years that you presented here. What seems to be troublesome is the other side of this. Or rather, the lack of a serious discussion.

I don't believe vaccination cause autism, but I would be very interested in hearing what is the arguments for the vaccination as such. Last winter we had a group of people getting the measles here in Norway. When I as a nurse tried to find what happened to them (beside being ill because of the measles), there was absolutely no answers from the health authorities. There are large groups of non-vaccinated people in Ukraine and France in Europe. Are they more ill, do they more often than the vaccinated people of the same countries, go to the hospital, have later health problems; what are the complications today in a modern society?

Living in squalid conditions, being poor, malnutritioned, all these will traditionally give higher risk for complications with the common child diseases, but living in the Western world today, is it? And why is it so very difficult to find any good research on this (as there are large groups of non-vaccinated people)?

I look forward to a good article from you on this. Too.

May. 15 2012 03:41 PM

Medicine and big pharma must be a funder! If you have ever held a vaccine damaged child's limp body in your arms, you would stop spreading the lies. Want science? Do some real journalism! Look at Dr Beatrice Golomb of UCSD medical school about the science of pharmaceutical studies and how conflicts of interest can bias your prescriptions. Look at NVIC - all the attorneys and physicians working to help the parents of vaccine dammaged children. LOOK, that is my point, LOOK!

May. 14 2012 07:46 PM

It certainly doesn't help when a major metropolitan newspaper promotes the anti-vax bunkum: "The Sun-Times proudly supports Generation Rescue & Autism One."

-- MrJM

May. 14 2012 07:22 PM

The comments here are pretty much prima facie evidence why we make no headway with the anti-vaccine crowd. Disturbing stuff.

May. 14 2012 06:57 PM
Holden236 from Oregon

Wow! It's obvious to see what rational and creditable science is up against. I'm not sure what it is about the vaccine opponents that inspires such myopia. I can only guess it's a perfect storm of past (and present) government and pharmaceutical misbehavior (which DOES need to be watched), poor understanding of the scientific method (especially when it contrasts with assumptions), "mama bear" parenting instincts, and some sort of buck-the-system superiority. It's ironic that the benefits of vaccination that have made the risks so distant only serves to fuel the opposition to those (unlike me but presumably like most of the posters) who've never watched a child die from a vaccine-preventable illness. Thankfully, MOST people understand the vital importance of vaccination, and the naive naysayers are declining in number.

May. 14 2012 01:48 PM
F.A. Carroll from South Central Texas

Extremely disappointed w/this interview...reminded me of the "scientific studies" that 'proved' that Agent Orange had no effect on VietNam Veterans or the population of VietNam, Cambodia, Laos. Also reminds me of the "scientific studies" that could find no correlation to the vaccines given to the Soldiers of the first Gulf War & the resulting "Gulf War Syndrome", where individual medical specialities looked w/in their scope to 'find' any support for the claims of Soldiers...nope, the medical community couldn't find any correlation - while they refused to look at the giving of all vaccines (including boosters) w/in 14 days, not the 6 months the CDC advised. If all the side effects of those vaccines were listed together, it's the list of symptoms of the "Syndrome" (to contrast, the GW invasion exposed our Soldiers to NO such vaccinations, they followed the guidelines...result - no 'syndrome'). All "scientific studies" w/a theory to prove...ALL INCORRECT. So why is Mnookin 'study' any different...nope it's just as flawed, as erroneous

Gotta ask, just what is Seth Mnookin's scientific background...he wrote for Vanity Fair, Newsweek & is a rock critic. He maybe qualified to write about sports, fashion and the such but a science writer needs to have SOME background to be believable.....so where did his "authority" come from?

Brooke Gladstone seemed to be in a haze (usually she is far more astute). She allowed Mnookin to group ALL vaccines together & cloud the discussion w/that mixture. Mnookin claimed (actually chuckled/laughed) that people were saying it's better to get the disease rather than the vaccine. NOPE, most of that discussion has been about the flu vaccine. Actually the flu vaccine is a crap shoot, BigPharm never knows what actual strain will occur so they combine a number of vaccines & HOPE for the desired result. Get the flu AND you get protection from the ACTUAL virus of the season.
Also neither interviewer nor interviewed seemed to take into consideration that at one time the major vaccines were given individually. Neither seemed to take into account that not only have the vaccines have been combined for the supposed decrease in stress on the infant, the solution the vaccine has changed over time. Neither seemed to consider that perhaps it's the solution, the combination is the suspect. Neither inquired deeply into the question of the increase is related to an increase in awareness of Autism or in the changes of vaccines. Neither seemed to consider anything other than Mnookin's new book.

May. 14 2012 10:00 AM
Mikel Grenzner

Wow, Brooke was right. There's a ton of people that need to sit down and take a science class. Why is it that people keep citing random blogs and the like as proof rather than peer reviewed journals and studies? Do folks just not understand how the scientific world actually works? Was it that hard not to sleep through high school biology class?

May. 14 2012 07:06 AM
Randy Baker MD from Soquel, CA

As a medical doctor who has studied the issue of vaccine safety, I was extremely disappointed in the incredible bias and one-sidedness of this story, which has neither the quality or fairness I expect on NPR. Those who question vaccine safety were dismissed as either conspiracy theorists or those who are uninformed. There was no mention of the many medical doctors (such as Sherri Tenpenny DO and neurosurgeon Russell Blaylock MD) and other respected scientists who question vaccine safety, nor of the large body of science questioning both the efficacy and safety of many vaccines.
Also, this piece implied that many of the concerns about vaccine safety have been fueled by stories in the media questioning the safety of vaccines. In reality, the vast majority of stories that appear in mainstream media on vaccines ignore the potential hazards or ridicule those who question safety- in fact your story is a prime example of this! I would hope that in fairness you also do a story on how the media generally ignores the science showing the hazards of vaccines. For a review of some of this science, please see an article I wrote at http://drrandybaker.com/2012/05/04/the-vaccination-debate-7/

May. 14 2012 06:52 AM

Page 11 of the Tripedia ingredient label lists autism as a documented adverse event in post marketing data.

This is NOT a 'myth.'

May. 13 2012 08:56 PM
Thinking Mama Bear from Vermont

Oh Brooke,

Dear Brooke,

I am so very disappointed with your coverage of this issue. The title itself skews the conversation.

f you want to know why parents are using vaccines selectively, why don't you speak to the parents? For many of us, the decision precedes the Andrew Wakefield studies.

I am old enough to remember measles, mumps and rubella as relatively benign illnesses that were a rite of passage in childhood. The doctor encouraged my moms to expose us so we would "get it over with." No one was afraid of a case of the measles.

made my decisions after careful research and consideration some twenty years ago, before the internet, before the Wakefield scandal because of the "hot lots" of DPT that were being administered to children (distrust of pharma and docs) and because the dangers of vaccines with additives like mercury and aluminum salts outweighed the risks of childhood illnesses.

If you are interested in investigative reporting and interviewing people with reasons for opting out, why not talk to Mary Holland, attorney, professor and author of Vaccine Epidemic, http://vaccineepidemic.com/

Why not talk to parents whose children were injured and killed by vaccines?

Or talk to the film makers who made The Greater Good http://www.greatergoodmovie.org/home

Or look in the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System to see that three healthy people died in Vermont in 2011 after receiving the flu vaccine.

It is outrageous to me that we are harping on educated parents who are making sound decisions based on diligent research rather than asking why are children dying from vaccines? Why are children getting injured by vaccines and parents getting told that vaccines are safe? Why did the National Vaccine Injury Act of Congress give vaccine manufacturers complete immunity from harm or death caused by their products?

Are you aware of how much the vaccine schedule has increased since 1960, both in number of doses and type of illnesses children are vaccinated against?

Another angle one might pursue is to ask "when did chicken pox become a "vaccine preventable disease?" We always referred to them as childhood illnesses.

Why is every child given three doses of Hep B vaccine when the Hep B status of nearly every woman giving birth in the USA is known? Why are we spending all this money on an unnecessary vaccine?

Why not talk to Wall Street banker/Analyst Michael Belkin who lost his infant daughter to the Hep B vaccine? He crunched out the risk factor numbers and testified before the US COngress.

Why not talk to Ginger Taylor? She founded the Canary Party. That;s right The Canary Party.

I sincerely hope you will take this topic up once more and bring us a broader and deeper picture of why parents are making the decision to opt out.

You mentioned the click clack of the keyboard and you got it.

Kind regards.

May. 13 2012 06:00 PM
Cindy walsh from Baltimore, Md

I think that it is old fashion to use the words 'conspiracy theory' when talking about how people feel about the Federal government. I am a main stream academic who thinks the government:

Conspired with banks to commit the massive mortgage fraud and protect the fraudulent gains.

Conspired with the commodities industry to profit from speculation in oil, and food among other things. Threatening 3 times in 3 years to enforce speculation laws on high oil/gas prices after billions in profit made with still no commoditeis laws on speculation passed......really?

Conspire with Gulf coast seafood industry when the FDA says seafood is safe to eat even as researchers are finding deformed animals and questionable contamination.....this in the case with fracking and aquifer pollution. Conspire with the meat industry giving the general population so much exposure to antibiotics as to place us in danger of massive epidemics, just so they can make billions in profit.

I could go on forever as you know. The issue of vaccinations may be one in which people were wrong to distrust government proclamations on safety, but there is a reason why many no longer listen to government proclamations.

May. 13 2012 04:44 PM

Another bit of feckless, cowardly reporting from NPR. The anti-science fanatics who don't believe in vaccination are the hosts of Public Radio shows. How many hours of Leonard Lopate do we have to listen to get the anti-sceince bias, while we are the same time listening to how anti-science the Global Warming deniers are. Why not track the anti-vaccination bias year by year on NPR, that would be real reporting not your usual self-righteous applauding of yourselves

May. 13 2012 01:07 PM

"According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers. Godlee said the study shows that of the 12 cases Wakefield examined in his paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR vaccine and three never had autism."


small study population, no controls, and a glaring conflict of interest.

May. 13 2012 08:22 AM
Paul from Oregon

Take the time to listen to Dr Wakefield's own words and then tell me that you can stand by your story.


It is time to start to think for ourselves. The media (including "On The Media") often times just parrots what the "authorities" give them.

May. 12 2012 04:35 PM
Troglomorphic from Wisconsin

The media aspects of this issue provide perspective as we watch with anticipation an example of Darwinian evolution and its inescapable outcome. It proceeds slowly. First the setup, which in this case is being performed right in front of our eyes by the interaction between misleading media reports, biological reality and the genotypes that express themselves as certain beliefs and behaviors. Beliefs and behaviors such as evangelical Christianity, home schooling, membership in the Tea Party, voting Republican, living anywhere in the U.S. south of the Mason Dixon line, and more generally ideation that vaccination is a government plot which results in among other things, autism. Next comes the sucker punch, when some formerly common, and still lurking disease returns and causes an epidemic. We can feel optimistic about the prospect of the better world this ancient and eternal process will bring for those not selected out. And their offspring.

May. 12 2012 04:17 PM

I find your headline for this story to be misleading. Talk to the thousands of parents of children damaged by mandatory vaccines before you decide to make the claim you make with this story.

Your show's credibility has decreased in my eyes. Please take a moment and listen to Dr Wakefield in his own words:


Perhaps you might create some balance to your one sided story by interview Dr Wakefield in the near future.


May. 12 2012 02:36 PM
Elphin Magic

So how do we convince people that 'facts' purported by one scientist, or a small group of outlying scientists, are malarchy? In my profession there is a book recently released, and promoted with a WSJ article that reads like a paid advertisement. Tens of thousands of medical professionals know it's misleading and erroneous, but some people incorrectly believe the author to be some sort of whistleblower. How do we fight this faux-science?

May. 12 2012 08:13 AM

Wait a minute - Why did NYC build the Smallpox Hospital on Roosevelt Island if there was so little smallpox?

If vaccine lovers and people who make decisions about our deeply flawed food system were to read Weston A Price (Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, copyright 1939, published before we needed to take our war chemicals and put them to use in so-called foods, industrial foods) there wouldn't be a need for vaccines because we would eat properly and be able to throw off diseases as so-called "primitive" societies did. Arctic peoples whose hunting lives went uninterrupted by trade, for example, could throw off TB while their neighbors eating "trade food" couldn't.

At a time when eugenics was a subject some serious people took seriously (pre-Nazi), he demonstrated that the issues were not genetic, but a matter of genes not finding their perfect expression because of poor nutrition. This he concluded after studying on site 14 remote societies around the globe with very different diets but with common denominators. Quite an interesting read. I don't think corporate-sponsored science tells us enough about life or health - it's just a POV. We don't think about that before we force vaccines on babies.

May. 12 2012 07:55 AM

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