the autism vaccine
THE STORY OF MODERN MEDICINE’S GREATEST TRAGEDY
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It has become clear to anyone paying attention that the children of our country—and many others—have begun to suffer from the neurological effects of autism at rates that defy belief. Just over a hundred years ago, the isolated aloneness and preoccupation with routine associated with the illness were all but unknown. A few decades ago, the rates of autism were still low enough for it to be considered rare, and most had never even heard of the disorder until Dustin Hoffman brought a quirky savant to the silver screen in 1988’s “Rain Man.”
Today—just three decades later—is a much different story. Autism is seemingly everywhere, in every school, in every neighborhood. Movie theaters hold autism-friendly “quiet nights” for those with sensory issues. Entire schools are being constructed, their sole purpose dedicated to serving those on the spectrum. Adult diapers and seizure helmets have become popular retail sellers, and exasperated parents have written books, lobbied government officials, and funded research to unlock the mysteries of what might be causing this, possibly our generation’s greatest health crisis.
Progress from the scientific and medical communities has been agonizingly slow. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent on research, the quest for a possible genetic cause of autism appears to have come up empty. Potential environmental triggers will occasionally bubble to the surface, but their association with the majority of autism cases have thus far remained elusive.
Possible treatments have been similarly disappointing. Drugs to control seizures have shown promise, but medications that can lessen the sometimes debilitating intestinal issues, self-injurious behaviors, and sensory disorders are few. It is not for lack of effort, certainly. The market to treat autism is growing by the day, and there are hundreds of paths being explored to treat—and hopefully reverse—its cruelest symptoms.
Discussion of the possibility for prevention is noticeably absent. Pharmaceutical companies have hundreds of vaccines in development. In addition to potential immunizations associated with less common bacterial and viral infections, drug companies are exploring potential vaccines for more esoteric ailments such as certain cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, acne, and even obesity. Indeed, there seems to be no end in sight for the potential targets of vaccination.
Curiously, a vaccine for autism—a devastating childhood disorder—is seldom mentioned. Why would this be? Nearly ninety years after autism first began to appear in epidemic form across the United States, scientists appear to have no idea what causes it. With no genetic mutation to correct or no microbe to target, a drug or vaccine for the disorder will remain an impossibility.
Another reason a vaccine to prevent autism is not often discussed is because a large number of parents believe vaccines caused their children’s autism. Many will recount how their children were fine hours before getting routine childhood immunizations, only to regress into the inability to speak, sleep, or make eye contact within days, hours, sometimes minutes later. Unfortunately, no complaint put forth by parents of children with disabilities has ever produced such derision and ridicule. While all other medical procedures are routinely questioned for their safety and efficacy, vaccines appear to be uniquely immune from admonishment. The mere mention of autism and vaccines in the same sentence might trigger a devout defender into fits of rage and vitriolic rhetoric.
Perhaps these outbursts are simply the result of the anonymous grandstanding the internet rewards, but regardless, considering that vaccines are the most commonly mentioned culprit associated with autism—by the parents of children with autism, no less—a closer look into the possibility they may play a role is certainly warranted.
Grumblings that the issue has already been thoroughly explored are a bit premature. Those who make this argument frequently reference a few epidemiological studies that looked at a single troublesome ingredient—thimerosal—or a single shot, the MMR vaccine. The reality is there are many other vaccines nearly every child receives which contain other ingredients, most of which have yet to be examined at all.
A careful sweep through both the history of autism and the history of vaccination has yielded a significant discovery—a coincidence in time and space seemingly too remarkable to ignore: In 1932, a new ingredient was added to the lone vaccine most children within the United States were being injected with. Within a year, a new mental disorder—unknown to even the most knowledgeable child psychologists in the country—began to appear. If the convergence of this new vaccine in 1932 and the simultaneous arrival of autism were truly coincidence, the way in which childhood immunizations present a unique delivery mechanism directly to the part of the brain most likely affected with the disorder is not.
CHAPTER 1: CANADA, 1937
The year was 1937, and it was late summer in Canada. The economic effects of America’s “Great Depression” were being felt far and wide as hundreds of companies shuttered their doors and gainful employment was impossible to find. Over the previous few months, two news stories had captivated the public’s attention. In May, the hydrogen-filled Hindenburg exploded as it attempted to moor in New Jersey, a spectacular conflagration caught on film and played throughout movie theaters across the country. Just months later, another aviation accident kept families glued to their radios as world-famous pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared in the Pacific Ocean during her attempt to circle the globe.
Two hundred miles north of Toronto, cars were lined up along the side of the highway near the small town of Callander. Scores of families were filling their tanks one more time before heading into the rural farmland, anxious to satisfy an entirely different obsession. With names like “Baby View Pavilion,” tourist camps and cabins had sprung up everywhere. The Red Line Inn had added an extra story to accommodate the summer swarms. Even the Callander gas station had capitalized on the tourist’s fascination by installing five gas pumps directly by the road, each one labelled “Cécile,” “Yvonne,” “Annette,” “Marie,” and “Emilie.” Children in the family car no doubt had their favorite and would quarrel over which pump they would use.
Many had traveled from the furthest reaches of the United States to make that last right turn in Callander towards what only three years earlier had been a ramshackle farm in the middle of nowhere. Now, it was completely transformed—the epicenter of a craze that had captured the hearts and hopes of people across the globe.
In 1934, a Canadian woman had given birth to five baby girls. They weren’t the first quintuplets ever born, but with North America mired in economic distress, the story of the Dionnes—a poor family living with no electricity, gas, or running water, and their five tiny girls as they fought for their lives—lit the world on fire. A full set of quintuplets had never made it longer than fifty days, and the doctor who helped deliver them offered little hope they would survive, a pronouncement which only emboldened the thousands who furiously cycled through their rosaries, praying diligently for the girls’ well-being.
Together, the infants tipped the scales at thirteen pounds, their individual weights unknown as nurses couldn’t locate anything small enough to accurately measure them. They were placed in laundry baskets, swaddled with blankets warmed from the wood-fired stove. Extra nurses were on call twenty-four hours a day, stroking their fragile bodies with olive oil, coaxing them along whenever their breathing appeared to falter.
As day fifty approached, all of the tiny infants had begun to show their grit. They had put on weight, a statistic tracked daily in newspapers across the continent. “QUINTUPLETS LOSE A BIT,” the June 16th New York Times declared, only to proclaim “QUINTUPLETS HOLD GAIN” the next day. The world watched breathlessly as they consumed any and all news regarding the girls’ skin color, their feeding schedule, and even the Lilliputian clothing being knitted by impromptu volunteers.
Well-wishers began to show up at the Dionne farm in hopes of catching a glimpse of the babes but were left to gape at a hundred diapers drying along three different clotheslines. Their father erected a fence to keep nosy onlookers at bay, later topped it with barbed wire, then finally called in for assistance from the local police to maintain order. The nurses could not help but to appease crowds that would gather outside, many of whom who had brought donations of clothing, bedding, and even donated breastmilk—all in hopes of playing a small part in the girls’ survival. Once or twice a day a nurse might walk out onto the porch and hold one of the tiny infants aloft, displaying their name for everyone to see on a large placard affixed to the railing.
“Yvonne,” the crowd would cry out, responding to any sign of life with coos and cries of delight as the nurse slowly rotated the baby in the air for more thorough observation. They’d return inside for a moment, change the sign to a different girl’s name and return with the same baby.
“Marie,” the applauding throng would call out in an attempt to cajole the girl into some sort of reaction. Early on, even the nurses had difficulty telling them apart and came to rely on their weights for differentiation. From behind the fence, the men, women, and children had no idea who they had actually seen, but it did not matter—they could return home and tell their friends they had travelled all the way past Callander, Canada, and seen, firsthand, the Dionne quintuplets.
With their notoriety growing, the Canadian government determined that the parents were incapable of properly raising the girls and assumed their guardianship. Directly across the road from the home where they were born, a small nursery and hospital were constructed, surrounded by two barbed-wire fences. Here the quints would eat and sleep, raised by several full-time nurses and the doctor who had helped deliver them.
Within a few years, crowds had begun to grow so large a huge observation gallery was constructed—a playground surrounded on three sides by a building from which curious sightseers could observe the girls’ activities through a one-way viewing screen. A full-time police sentry building was constructed, along with a restaurant and enormous souvenir shop. Thousands of people would cycle through the area every day during the warm summer months, eager to catch a glimpse of the girls at play.
Quintland, as it came to be called, became a national attraction, the pride of Canada. Millions of dollars began pouring into the local and regional economy. Postcards, dinner plates, baby dolls, and collectible spoons were but a few of the items anyone might buy, each made in sets of five: Cécile, Yvonne, Annette, Marie, and Emilie.
The girls appeared to have beaten the odds. They had survived infancy and were pronounced by their doctor to be in perfect health. The importance of their sound condition could not have been more important—their doctor had become an international celebrity and was traveling to points far and wide where packed theaters, full of inquisitive physicians, hung on every word as he recounted the techniques he had employed to ensure the quintuplet’s survival.
While their remarkable story warmed the hearts of millions, behind the scenes, a shadow had appeared. Marie, by far the tiniest and most frail, had been able to catch up with the others, but unfortunately, Emilie, the mischievous one, had started having “fainting spells.” She had been prone to sickness more than her sisters, but this new development troubled both caretakers and parents.
As the world followed the girls’ lives and marveled at their doctor’s miraculous handiwork, it was decided the veneer of perfect health would be maintained at all costs. Not a word of Emilie’s troubles would be mentioned outside the iron fences of the nursery—for now.
As cars topped off their tanks from the gas pumps named “Marie” or “Cécile” and made the turn for Quintland, another family rode in their car silently towards a much different destination. They had left their home in Forest City, Mississippi, and were headed south to a preventorium—a special facility originally designed to isolate people with tuberculosis, a respiratory infection often caused by highly contagious bacteria. This campus housed children exclusively but was today receiving a different kind of patient—a boy not with tuberculosis, but something unlike anything they had ever seen before.
Like the Dionne quintuplets, Donald Triplett’s caretakers had made efforts to hide his differences from the public. His father, a prominent attorney, and mother, a busy socialite and teacher, were concerned with the appearances of having a “disturbed” son. Mental problems were widely believed to be inherited, and as a result, the stigma of having such a child reflected poorly on their genetic stock. If word spread of Donald’s issues, their social standing might have been wrecked, and any of their future children would likely have difficulties finding someone willing to marry them.
Donald was born in September 1933 and seemed completely normal. He walked and talked at the expected times, hit all of his development milestones, some earlier than usual. Then something changed—he stopped responding when his parents called his name. He no longer made direct eye contact with anyone. He appeared to desire little human interaction at all but preferred the company of inanimate objects. Paper clips. Ashtrays.
Donald was able to latch on to the world’s fascination with the Dionne quintuplets and had memorized their names. But in another curious development, he associated them not with the girls themselves, but with colors. Annette, to him, represented blue, while Cécile was red.
“Annette and Cécile make purple,” he might say as he learned to combine colors to make new ones while he painted.
Other word transpositions would follow, such as switching “I” for “you” and vice-versa. For his mother, whose main concern for her child might have been tuberculosis or “summer diarrhea,” this was a maddening development. Every health precaution had been taken, disease had been avoided, and yet, something very strange had happened to her son. He had disappeared. His body was there, but it were as if a crucial part of his being vanished into thin air.
In complete despair—and due to exhortations from their doctors—Donald’s parents had agreed to “institutionalize” him. They were dropping him off at the preventorium to be taken care of by professionals, an expense most would not have been able to afford. His parents were instructed to get on with their lives, have more children, and do their best to forget Donald had ever happened.
The farewell, like every other good-bye since they had lost him, was non-existent. In what might have been the most hurtful phenomenon of all, Donald left their presence into the company of strangers without the least complaint. The years of struggle his mother had invested provided few rewards. A slight pause or turn, a teary eye—anything that would indicate he was alarmed at her departure—might have caused her to reconsider leaving him. But as he was led away by a nurse towards his room, there was nothing. He walked away from her as if they had never met.
While Donald and Emilie were thousands of miles apart, they may have shared a much deeper connection than a reference to color. Although both of their mothers would have been concerned with tuberculosis and summer diarrhea, another disease, not often mentioned today, would have stoked the majority of their fear. A bacterial infection, unheard of in the United States before the mid 1800s, had become a horrible killer, taking the lives of countless children every year.
A crude vaccine had existed for several decades, but its side effects were more dreaded than the disease itself. In 1932, a newer, safer version of the shot was introduced throughout the United States and beyond. Although it contained a new ingredient intended to make the shot more effective, the addition may have forever altered the history of medicine and human health as we know it. Within a year of the introduction of this new shot, the health landscape began a significant shift and all over the country, toddlers, mostly boys, began to experience a unique change in their mental faculties—a transformation which would later be called autism.
Given the relentless increase in autism, predicted by many to continue its exponential rise, it is long past time we take a serious look at why this may be happening. As scientific battles rage, with deeply entrenched sides lobbing their papers and reports at each other with all the intent of a short-fused hand grenade, a historical account of what happened may bring some much-needed clarity to the debate. It is not an easy thing to read, and indeed, it may be too painful for many to complete. But some will make it through to the end, and for those that do, they will need to retell this story again and again. Time is running out, and it’s time others heard—and understood—what actually happened.