Given that April is Autism Awareness Month, it seemed appropriate to briefly discuss the early history of the autism-vaccine hypothesis. Though this alleged link is often stated as having begun with Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper, Trine Tsouderos, a science journalist at the Chicago Tribune, reminded the audience at a recent panel discussion on vaccines in New York City, it really began in 1982 with a television documentary by Lea Thompson called DPT: Vaccine Roulette.
The film, which earned Thompson an Emmy Award, caused hysteria by suggesting the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) vaccine was dangerous and propelled Thompson into the spotlight as the leading critic of vaccines. DPT: Vaccine Roulette gave birth to many of the same poor arguments, logical fallacies, and distorted facts vaccine critics still employ today, as was evident at the recent Vaccine Epidemic book launch event that was covered on this site last month. According to Tsouderos, Thompson even inflated the credentials of the experts she cited and included individuals with far fringe views such as AIDS denialists. It certainly was not the collection of experts one would be expected to turn to if they were legitimately seeking expertise on the topic.
And of course, the film featured an abundance of anecdotes in lieu of scientific data to support its thesis that the DPT vaccine causes brain damage. Take this anecdote where the film clearly commits the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy:
POLLY GAUGERT, AGE 7, REACTION: FEVER, UNCONTROLLED SEIZURES, BRAIN DAMAGE. “I said that maybe she should not have had this shot because it seems to me that she was not quite herself,” recalled Polly’s mother. “And [the doctor] checked her all over and he said, ‘She looks okay to me,’ and then he gave her the shot. And the next morning when I was feeding her she went into a grand mal seizure…I didn’t know what was happening. I thought she was dying in my arms.”
Here, Polly’s condition are attributed to the vaccine simply because the symptoms allegedly first appeared the day following the vaccine with no other evidence supporting that assertion.
This film, along with the national media attention it garnered, inevitably led to a decrease in vaccination rates. Not only that but it drove an increase in frivolous lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers because parents were primed to suspect vaccines in particular for whatever symptoms happened to emerge. One such parent was Barbara Loe Fisher, who after watching Thompson’s film, became convinced that the DPT vaccine caused her child’s neurological condition, which she now identifies as autism. Since then, she’s devoted her life to fighting a crusade against vaccines, which she now does under the banner of an organization known as the National Vaccine Information Center. She also published a book, A Shot in the Dark, where she repeats Thompson’s accusations against the pertussis vaccine.
The frivolous lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers that followed DPT: Vaccine Roulette and Fisher’s activism in turn drove the legislation to protect those manufacturers from going bankrupt, an action that would itself further public suspicious of conspiracy and eventually pave the way for Andrew Wakefield’s revival of the vaccine-autism hypothesis.