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Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism

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The newest book by Peter Hotez.

When the now-debunked paper by Andrew Wakefield linking vaccines to autism was published in 1998, American vaccine developer Peter Hotez immediately questioned its findings.

“The paper never made much sense to me,” he said. “We already knew that the changes in the brains of kids with autism are pretty pervasive. And I couldn't imagine a mechanism by which a vaccine could cause autism.”

Hotez had more at stake than being in the business of finding new vaccines. He had a six-year-old daughter on the autism spectrum. Her name is Rachel. 

His first reaction to the Wakefield paper turned out to be right. Soon reports came out that there were serious problems with the paper that completely undermined its findings. But it took until 2010 before the paper was officially retracted.

“This enabled what became a very organized and well-funded anti-vaccine movement in Europe and in the United States,” Hotez told Living Lab Radio. “And we're still living with the consequences of that. In fact, things have gotten even much worse over the last year.”

Hotez, who is a dean at Baylor College of Medicine, points out that there were 40,000 cases of measles in Europe in the first half of 2018 and 40 deaths associated with those cases. He says there are half a dozen states in the Western U.S. where a large number of children aren’t being vaccinated.

“We had 200 influenza deaths this year among kids,” Hotez said. “Almost all of those kids were not vaccinated, despite recommendation.”

Hotez has dedicated his career to what he sees as the most promising way to eliminate devastating diseases that disproportionately affect the world's poorest people. He's also been vocal about the safety and importance of vaccines and has written two books on the topic: Forgotten People, Forgotten Diseases and Blue Marble Health.

His latest book is a head-on response to anti-vaccination campaigns. It’s called Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad.

“I felt nobody was really speaking out about it and I was uniquely positioned to do so,” he said. “I'm a vaccine scientist and an autism dad. So, if I don't do it, who will?”

In the book, Hotez talks about everything we’ve learned about autism over the last 20 years. Of particular note: there is evidence that there are changes in the brain of an autistic child that happen in utero, well before they ever see their first vaccine.

“So there's not even any plausibility that vaccines cause autism,” he said.

One of the problems with the now 20-year-old erroneous paper is that money and effort has been spent debunking the link between vaccines and autism when it could have been spent on research and resources.

Hotez said that it has been a struggle to find work for Rachel, who is now 26. 

“Adult employment opportunities for her are extremely limited,” he said. “Finally, Goodwill came to our rescue. Now she works two hours a day at Goodwill and makes minimum wage. But she's thrilled, very proud to take home a paycheck.”

Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.