Autism and the Affluent

By Mnookin, Seth | Newsweek, January 17, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Autism and the Affluent

Mnookin, Seth, Newsweek

Byline: Seth Mnookin

My wife and I first noticed our friends' preoccupation with autism and vaccines in late 2007, right around the time former TV star and Playboy Playmate Jenny McCarthy published the first of several bestsellers in which she claimed that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine had probably given her son autism. As we soon discovered, McCarthy's intuition-based approach to medicine (she referred to it as "mommy instinct") had a number of adherents among our friends.

One night at a dinner party in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood famed for its degree-laden denizens and their obsessive approach to parenting, I asked a first-time father why he and his wife had decided to delay giving their son some of his shots. "I don't know what to say," he said. "It just feels like a lot for a developing immune system to deal with."

At the time, I had no idea whether his fears were justified, but I was taken aback by the fact that he was basing his decision on emotions and not facts. Today, after more than two years of research, I have to agree with a federal judge, who wrote in a 2009 decision that when it comes to autism and vaccines, the evidence is "so one-sided" in support of there not being a causal connection between the two that it is "not a close case."

Yet the vaccine rate has continued to plummet in progressive enclaves similar to my own, where residents show their disdain for the anti-science beliefs of creationists by putting "Darwin fish" bumper stickers on their hybrid cars. Take Ashland, Ore., the home to a nationally renowned Shakespeare festival: its vaccine exemption rate is the highest in the country. Marin County, just north of San Francisco, is another example: it has the nation's fifth-highest average per capita income--and an exemption rate more than three times the rest of the state.

The roots of this phobia extend back to 1998, when a British doctor claimed to have discovered a possible link (since debunked) between the MMR vaccine and autism.

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