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Understanding the fear of vaccines: an activist explains why he buys a debunked idea

An MMR vaccine.
An MMR vaccine.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images News

Dan Olmsted is the editor of the website Age of Autism and author of multiple books that purport a link between vaccines and autism — a link that researchers have debunked again and again. In 2006, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) cited Olmsted's research in introducing legislation to direct the federal government to further study concerns about vaccines.

Olmsted has written in particular detail about his concerns over thimerosal, a mercury compound that used to be — but is no longer included — in routinely recommended childhood vaccines, with the exception of the flu shot. He argues parents should be wary of vaccines because of a supposed risk of autism, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

I spoke to Olmsted on Monday about his work, why he thinks vaccines cause autism, and how he views the current Disneyland measles outbreak. Something to notice in our conversation is that the fear of vaccines isn't evidence-free: Olmsted cited a slew of specific studies to support his stance. The problem is the evidence doesn't hold up. After the interview, I tracked down some of Olmsted's citations and found the underlying studies and examples to be disputed at best and outright false at worst. Those footnotes are detailed below this transcript.

German Lopez: What would you say is the goal of your work?

Dan Olmsted: My work is an effort to bring a journalistic perspective to this issue. I've been doing this for almost 10 years now, focused on the question of what's causing the autism epidemic and if it's real.

I came to the conclusion pretty early on that vaccines are a significant part of it. I have been looking into that ever since. I've been bringing attention to that and trying to counter the mainstream wisdom that all of this is debunked, disproved, anecdotal, and there's nothing to it.

German Lopez: What's your basis for thinking vaccines are linked to autism?

Dan Olmsted: I would say there are micro and macro reasons.

Micro is listening to parents who talk about what happened to their kids. That's almost a dangerous thing to say, because it's so easy to dismiss as anecdotal. Someone might think, these poor parents, their kids get a vaccine and then autism comes up shortly thereafter because that's the age it comes on, and they're looking for something to blame.

That's not true. I've talked to so many parents now that in many cases it really was the vaccine that led to autism and other things.

The other thing is there's some very interesting science that doesn't get talked about very much both in terms of the MMR [measles, mumps, and rubella] vaccine and the schedule that is in place now.

Thimerosal also doesn't get talked about much in current issues. But I've done a lot of research on the first cases of autism in the 1930s, and it really tracks with the introduction of thimerosal, which is a potent form of organic mercury, into vaccines.

German Lopez: A lot of public health experts disagree with the connection you're making. There was the 2011 Institute of Medicine review. The 1998 study from The Lancet was retracted. How would you respond to these experts and studies?

Dan Olmsted: I think studies that say autism isn't a consequence of vaccination are wrong. They're not unbiased. They're not independent. They have flaws that have been pointed out by a lot of folks on my side who are a lot more scientifically trained than I am.

But we've seen before that a whole cluster of supposed evidence and science can be wrong. I think we saw with the tobacco issue in the 1950s and 1960s, the industry churned out just tons and tons of seemingly very credible papers that they bought and paid for that showed there was no risk from tobacco, that it wasn't proven.

I also think there's an analogy to Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. A lot of the mainstream media, including the New York Times, was a big supporter of the war — and our government said any reasonable person would conclude that Iraq had these weapons. Well, they didn't. And despite all the seeming evidence that they did, they certainly did not.

A cigarette.

Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images

Behold, the deadliest substance in America. (Eric Feferberg / AFP via Getty Images)

German Lopez: But when the tobacco industry put out those studies showing tobacco wasn't dangerous, study after study came out in the years and decades after showing tobacco does cause all these health problems.

With vaccines, it's been the opposite. In 1998, The Lancet's paper comes out claiming a connection between vaccines and autism. Then study after study comes out and shows that there's no connection. Then The Lancet's paper is retracted. And we haven't seen a major study replicate or agree with The Lancet's report.

So I'm trying to understand how that comparison works. Do you think there's another credible report, or do you think the existing research is just biased?

Dan Olmsted: I think the answer is that a lot of it is biased.

I don't know if you're familiar with William Thompson, who recently acknowledged that in fact researchers have found a link between autism and the MMR vaccine — and then it was suppressed by his colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's a pretty big bombshell that's gotten very little attention.

I do think there are cracks in the facade of this sort of consensus. I think it's been under-reported, misreported, and dismissed.

There was a report done by some of the folks I work with that found a staggering percentage of cases of vaccine injury that were compensated by the federal government's program. Autism was, in fact, a cause in a lot of cases, but it wasn't acknowledged.

Another one: a CDC study looked at whether thimerosal was connected with autism. They did a first round of studies that were never released that showed there was a seven to 11 times risk of autism from the highest dose of thimerosal versus the lowest dose. They did five or more iterations of that study. By the time they were done, they found nothing. It's suspect.

You don't have a 9/11 truther or a climate change denier to think there's something here. I've been in the business for 30 years. I have a pretty decent track record. Either I've gone completely over the edge or I'm on to something. People have to make up their own minds on that.

"Either I've gone completely over the edge or I'm on to something"

German Lopez: The Institute of Medicine is very well-respected, not just in the US but globally. Why would they have an incentive to mislead the public or get this wrong?

Dan Olmsted: I can't answer that question. Whether it's a question of misleading or not thoroughly misunderstanding some of the data despite their reputation, I can't speak to that.

I will say if you go back and look at the most important of those studies, in 2005, it basically said there's no evidence the MMR vaccine and thimerosal had no connection to autism whatsoever.

But somebody leaked some of their transcripts of their discussions. They said, before they even looked at anything, that they're simply not going to say there's a direct link between vaccines and autism. They saw it as too dangerous considering the value of vaccines to public health.

I think there is an understandable but ultimately dangerous calculation going on in some people's minds where vaccination is so important.

I don't dispute that vaccination has a place. I'm not anti-vaccine. Some people are. I'm not.

But I don't think you can ever say we're going to make the decision that it's so important that these vaccines lead to herd immunity to our children that we're going to ignore the possibility of side-effects or simply can't imagine that they exist.

German Lopez: The biggest data point that I've heard from people on your side is that if you look at the trends in autism diagnoses and the uptake and scheduling of vaccination, both are going up at the same time.

But the response to that is that's correlation, not causation. We could be diagnosing autism differently or better in recent years, which has happened with all sorts of mental health issues. How do you respond to that?

Dan Olmsted: Well, it could be. I'm sure that Diet Coke or some other thing we could find went up and we could try to blame that. But in the case of vaccines, I think there's been plenty of evidence that they have the ability to cause the kind of damage that can lead to autistic behavior.

The daughter of a neurologist, the government stipulated that she got autism after getting nine vaccines in one day.

If autism hasn't increased at all, there's no story here. But it has increased — and it's increased by a factor of many-fold. There's no question autism has exploded. And I think there's a lot of ways to look at that and demonstrate that's a fact. Trying to act like that hasn't even happened flies in the face of good science.

German Lopez: You mentioned earlier that you're not anti-vaccine. Is there any sort of study or research that could convince you vaccines are safe?

Dan Olmsted: When you look at the 16 vaccine formulations that kids get by the age of 18, we look at them and we have four that we think the reward exceeds the risk. One of them is measles, actually.

I think the question is what would convince me is not quite a fair question. It's fine to ask it, but I'm not sure there's an answer to that that leads anywhere.

I'm not saying vaccines are a public health menace, that they should never be given, that they don't work. That's not my position. My position is that they cause much more serious side-effects much more commonly than is acknowledge — and autism is one of those.

But I think the polio vaccine wiped out polio, and good for it.

German Lopez: This issue is getting a lot of attention due to the measles outbreak in Disneyland. How would you address concerns about that disease spreading?

Dan Olmsted: Well, in my book I say measles can be a serious disease. It's rare, but it can be. It is circulating. It is something that would be unlikely for any one child to catch, but it's possible. And therefore it would be reasonable for parents to consider that vaccine.

I'm not anti-measles vaccine. I think the MMR vaccine is unfortunate, because it does have an association with autism. I think it would be better if they split those vaccines into three — the way they were originally — and wait a while to give them.

But my concern isn't measles. It's autism.

German Lopez: What kind of policy changes do you want? Do you think parents should be given more choice?

Dan Olmsted: I was looking at some of the coverage today, because New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had a comment about parents getting a choice and the White House kind of came down on him about it.

Vaccines are not required. You need certain ones to go to public school unless you get an exception, which in a lot of states are very easy to get. If you're home schooled, vaccinations aren't required. So parents have a choice.

Lots of parents have lost confidence in the safety of the vaccine schedule. They are picking and choosing or forgoing vaccines altogether — and they've got the right to do that.

It's a little bit of a misunderstanding — and I think the government is glad for people to have — that you have to get those vaccines or you're going to go to jail. It's not true.

German Lopez: If you thought vaccines were perfectly safe — and I know that's not your position, and everyone acknowledges they can have very minor side-effects in rare instances — do you still think parents should have a choice?

Dan Olmsted: Yeah.


Vaccine preparation. (BSIP/UIG via Getty Images)

German Lopez: So how do you respond to concerns about herd immunity — that it's not about protecting yourself from disease, but protecting your broader community?

Dan Olmsted: Well, if you vaccinate your child, your child is protected. So the choice of other people choosing not to do so isn't a worry there.

Also, I think in the real world parents are smart enough in most cases to get vaccines for diseases that they're afraid of. If Ebola started to spread in this country and there was an Ebola vaccine, you wouldn't need a mandate to get parents to get it or get anyone to get it.

It's just the fact they've gotten just crazy with the vaccine schedule. I don't believe rotavirus vaccine is necessary in this country. The chickenpox vaccine is not only not a good idea, but I think it's causing more cases of shingles in older Americans.

But I don't think we'd be having this discussion if vaccines were as safe if the government says they are. Who would even think about it? I mean, I got some vaccines when I was a kid. I got the DTP and polio vaccines. Nobody thought twice about it, even though with the live-virus vaccine one in a million children did get polio from it. That was seen as the price worth paying to stop the disease.

But now I think parents have a lot of common sense and the American people can sort of smell a rat. But unfortunately they don't have the information on which shots are the ones that they really do need, and they end up maybe not getting the measles vaccine when that might make more sense — given that measles is out there.

It's kind of a mess. I blame the government for it being a mess. I don't blame parents and anti-vaxxers.

German Lopez: How would you label the work you do, since you don't like the terms anti-vaccine and anti-vaxxer?

Dan Olmsted: I don't like the terms when applied to me. For a lot of people, they're accurate, and they're anti-vaccine.

I would say that my own work as a journalist has convinced me that the current vaccination schedule is causing far more problems than the government will acknowledge. That's something we are trying to point out and fix.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

After speaking to Olmsted, I looked up some of the claims he made during the course of our interview, particularly places where he cited a specific study that I was unfamiliar with. Here is what I found.

Olmsted said the CDC tried to suppress findings from researcher William Thompson supposedly linking vaccines to autism. Snopes previously deemed this claim false, and the blog Respectful Insolence found the assertion cherry-picks a small subgroup in a study that overall found no link between vaccines and autism. Many studies, including the comprehensive Institute of Medicine review from 2011, have also come out since the original study in question showing no connection between vaccines and autism.

Another study cited by Olmsted supposedly found a link between thimerasol, a mercury compound no longer included in most childhood vaccines, and autism. But as Emily Willingham at Forbes explains, this study — a multi-phase study — ended by finding no link between thimerasol and autism. Even so, it's become the center of many conspiracy theories, most of which seem to center around confusion over how to interpret multi-phase studies.

Olmsted also pointed to a report done by some of his colleagues that allegedly found the federal government paid out parents for vaccine injuries that caused autism.

David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine wrote about this issue in detail. The federal government paid people for vaccine injuries that may have resulted in autism-like symptoms, but a full autism diagnosis requires a collection of symptoms to be present, not just a few. Digging deeper into the numbers, Gorski concluded, "Taking into account the skewed population and the noise inherent in looking at a small population over 20 years, the prevalence of autism in VICP-compensated children does not appear to be detectably different than it is in the general population."

A similar explanation applies to Olmsted's claim that a neurologist received a federal payout when his daughter was allegedly diagnosed with autism. Kathleen Doheny at WebMD wrote that in that case the federal government only acknowledged that vaccines aggravated a pre-existing condition that manifested in autism-like symptoms.

The neurologist, Jon Poling, also told WebMD that he's not anti-vaccine, although he said the issue deserves more study.

Olmsted also described a transcript in which he claimed Institute of Medicine officials said they would never admit to a connection between vaccines and autism regardless of the research evidence. The blog Skeptico posted the full transcript, showing that the comments were taken out of context from a broader conversation about how to conduct the research without triggering any unfounded fears among the public.

Finally, Olmsted claimed there's a connection between the chickenpox vaccine and shingles at a later age. Researchers told Serena Gordon at WebMD they found no statistically significant rise in shingles cases after the introduction of the chickenpox vaccine, and cases of shingles didn't vary among states with different chickenpox vaccination coverage rates.

There's a broader point here. It can be easy to stereotype the vaccine debate as people who believe in scientific evidence versus people who don't. But that's an oversimplification. Vaccine skeptics do think they believe in scientific evidence. They can cite dozens of studies and cases. They see themselves as the side in this debate that's actually following the evidence, while the pro-vaccine side is blindly trusting in authority and ultimately getting taken in by a massive pharmaceutical scam.

The problem is when you dig into the studies they cite, the evidence they're relying on doesn't hold up — it's misinterpreted, selectively reported, or refracted through conspiracy theories. But knock down one bad interpretation of a study and there's always another, and another, and another. And then there's the flood of wrenching anecdotes which can't be checked, but which are reported by people who are in pain and arouse our deepest sympathies. The result is that to someone primarily consuming anti-vaccine arguments, the evidence looks overwhelming, the media's dismissal of it looks corrupt, and the victims seem very real.

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