Here’s what the culture of science dictates that Paul Offit should say in response to the Green Our Vaccines rally:
These conclusions are not supported by the data.
Then he should walk you through that data, patiently, bloodlessly. He should explain how scientists have gone looking, 18 times now, in 18 separate studies, for any link between vaccines and autism. And they’ve come up empty, however they slice it, whether they’re looking at the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) shot or the mercury-derived chemical preservative called thimerosal. It does not logically follow that the frickin’ mercury could cause autism, because the frickin’ mercury was removed from U.S. children’s vaccines in 2001, except for some flu vaccines, and rates of autism keep going up and up and up anyway. As for broader fears of “vaccine overload” — the idea that moms and dads today are being asked to give their kids more vaccines than their kids’ immune systems can handle, as many as 26 inoculations over two years — Offit should acknowledge your worries with a sympathetic phrase or two (“I get it, I get that that’s hard to do”) before pointing out that vaccines have become so pinprick-precise, so laser-targeted, that whenever a kid gets the slightest paper cut, and some portion of the trillion or so bacteria sitting around on the surface of that kid’s skin infiltrates that kid’s immune system, the kid is “vaccinated” in quantities that dwarf the comparatively minuscule load of those 26 inoculations.
Offit should say all of that — and stop.
But of course, he doesn’t stop. Because if he stops, he loses. And if he loses, kids die. Maybe yours.
ONE DAY IN 1991, when Offit was a young attending doctor at CHOP, he was called in to consult on three or four patients. They were behind Plexiglas at the hospital’s intensive care unit. They were slung across stretchers, with plastic breathing tubes down their throats, which fed them maximal concentrations of oxygen. The kids were obviously in bad shape. There was almost no viable tissue left in their lungs. They were dying.
The parents of these children, Offit later learned, belonged to a church community in North Philly that practiced faith healing. None of the kids had been vaccinated against the measles or any other disease. Their parents didn’t believe in vaccines. This was unfortunate, because the measles virus is not really affected by human belief. The measles has never been eradicated completely, like smallpox. It’s still around, lurking — a spark looking for the right tinder. That summer, a particle of the measles virus happened to catch in that church community, blazing rapidly through its unvaccinated kids, and there was nothing Offit could do. It was too late. Offit saw those kids every day, as they slowly drowned in their own fluids.
The experience would have transformed anyone. “You can’t watch that happen and not be affected by it,” Offit says. But he took the deaths of those children especially personally, because he knew the man who had invented the shot that would have saved them. His name was Maurice Ralph Hilleman, and he was one of Offit’s mentors. But more than that, he was a hero to Offit. You can’t understand Offit — the choices he’s made, the sharp, irreverent, earnest way he talks — without understanding Hilleman.