restricted access 2. Sources of Doubt

From: Vaccine

The Johns Hopkins University Press colophon
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Sources of Doubt It is easy to find claims about the risks posed by particular vaccines—or vaccines generally—to young children. For example, anti-vaccinators often claim that DPT (the vaccine against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) increases a baby’s risk of sudden infant death syndrome or deafness and that the varicella vaccine causes sterility in boys. These concerns have at times emerged as a result of published scientific research; for example, in the mid1990s , researchers hypothesized that administering vaccines to a child at a particular age might increase the chances the child would develop diabetes. Sometimes fears about vaccines follow particular political, national, or ethnic lines, such as the case with the claim circulating within certain African, Muslim , and African American communities that the polio vaccine or the vaccine against hepatitis B caused the AIDS pandemic. Even vaccines given to adults elicit fears of horrible, unintended consequences; it is often claimed that Gulf War Syndrome resulted from the anthrax vaccine that soldiers received. Similarly , there are many reports that the Lyme disease vaccine causes a severe form of arthritis and that the vaccines against tetanus or hepatitis B can cause multiple sclerosis. Anti-vaccinators’ claims have spawned a small industry devoted to publishing their books and pamphlets. For the last two decades, information about vaccines and criticisms of their safety and efficacy were discussed in books from obscure publishers like North Atlantic Books, the New Atlantean Press, Knowledge House, Hatterleigh Press, and Happiness Press. A handful of authors—such as Neil Z. Miller, Randall Neustaedter, and Robert S. Mendelsohn—have published extensive critiques of vaccines, and their books have sold well. The Internet has, of course, been a boon to the anti-vaccination movement, with well-trafficked websites like the National Vaccine Information Center, Vaccination News, Vaccination Liberation, the Vaccine Website, and These sources are all readily available to parents with a quick trip to the bookstore or with the stroke of a few keys; they contain an astounding range of authoritative-sounding claims and terrifying 2 38 Vaccine anecdotes, capable of worrying any parent, especially one who lacks formal medical training, has preexisting concerns about vaccines, or has a tense relationship with his or her child’s pediatrician. Until the late 1990s, antivaccination authors’ influence was limited to the small number of Americans who adopted “natural” lifestyles, were regular users of alternative medicine, or subscribed to anti-government conspiracy theories. They had little influence on the average American. But now the claims are well known across the social, economic, and political spectrums in the United States, and they animate much of the conversation among parents about their concerns over vaccines. In this chapter I will examine the origins of the specific beliefs expressed by modern American anti-vaccinators: namely, that vaccines are unsafe, ineffective , untested, and overused. Generally speaking, these notions emerged in the early twentieth century and have evolved alongside the assertions made by the mainstream scientific and medical communities about the incredible power of vaccines to promote public health. What is important here is not to offer a point-by-point critique of the shortcomings of their concerns about vaccines. Responses to criticisms of vaccines are just as easy to find in parenting magazines, professional literature, and on the Internet as are the criticisms themselves. Rather, I want to look specifically at the very different— and originally very fringe—sources from which such claims emanate, and demonstrate how, during the 1990s, they migrated into the mainstream of American thought and coalesced into the set of concerns typically heard from vaccine-anxious parents today. Our investigation into the wellspring of modern American anti-vaccination sentiment begins with alternative medicine. I will explore its notions generally , recognizing that there are a wide range of unorthodox beliefs, claims, and theories operating under the banner of alternative medicine, some of which contradict one another. Throughout the twentieth century, the most prolific anti-vaccine figures have operated within the confines of alternative medicine. I will briefly discuss the challenge alternative medicine represents to mainstream science and medicine before turning to a close examination of the anti-vaccination sentiment in one particular branch of alternative medicine , chiropractic. Then, I will look at two issues that threw anti-vaccination rhetoric into mainstream conversation: HIV/AIDS and Gulf War Syndrome. My point in escorting readers through these social and professional movements and for analyzing the basis for their criticism of vaccines is to identify Sources of Doubt 39 the source of...