Getting your shots used to be as American as motherhood and apple pie. Now a small but vocal group is saying no—with
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Porter has autism, there’s no doubt about that. He’s 18 and still wears a diaper. A cloth around his neck catches the drool caused by his medication.
Around dinner time, his mother, Sarah Bridges, removes the white helmet he wears to protect him from himself, and he sits on the carpet of their Richfield home, smiling and staring.
“Where’s Pocahontas?” he asks. Bridges, a psychologist and executive coach with the golden hair and easy manner of a displaced California girl, laughs—she’s heard this one before, a reference to the Disney movie. “Pocahontas is with John Smith,” she says. A few minutes later, he asks again: “Where’s Pocahontas?” He says it until he gets an answer, and he expects the same answer. “He’s got seven or eight of these questions that he moves between,” Bridges says. “It’s like he’s in a loop.”
Until he was four months old, Porter was developing normally. Then he got his immunization shots: diptheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough)—you name it, he got it. The night of his pertussis shot, Porter woke up screaming with a fever. Then he became unconscious. After a two-hour seizure, he returned to normal—only he wasn’t the same kid.
By age 3, he had been hospitalized 14 times for seizures. He began regressing, losing his skills as if a video of his childhood was playing backward. He wouldn’t sit still. He wouldn’t speak except in non sequiturs: “Tigger’s stuck in a tree!” over and over. He was soon diagnosed with brain damage and severe autism.
Bridges filed a lawsuit. Americans can’t sue vaccine makers directly—the federal government, which presumes a steady flow of vaccine to be in the national interest, is too concerned that pharmaceutical companies would stop producing vaccines if they were hit with expensive personal-injury lawsuits. So, in 1986, as the country was generally becoming more litigious, Congress established the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, often called vaccine court, to handle any claims against vaccine makers. In the 1990s, when Bridges sued, three-quarters of the claims were related to the combined DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis) shot. Bridges alleged in her 1994 suit that the pertussis vaccine had led to Porter’s brain damage and autism.
Years passed. Doctors contracted by the government would examine Porter, and then Bridges would hear nothing for long stretches. She chose not to vaccinate her other kids.
In the meantime, a highly publicized study suggesting that vaccines could in fact trigger autism, overseen by British researcher Andrew Wakefield and published in 1998, came and went—it was declared fraudulent by the British Medical Journal in early 2011. The supposed vaccine-autism link, said many other scientists, was a myth: vaccines have occasional side effects, like any other drug, but autism is not one of them.
Then, in May of last year, Bridges was invited to speak at a press conference in Washington, D.C., and revealed that years earlier she had reached a multi-million-dollar settlement with the government. “The idea that there’s no link between vaccines and autism is a complete red herring,” she said. Bridges was interviewed on FOX News and the clip went viral on the Internet. For the millions of Americans who had never stopped believing in a vaccine-autism link—who thought the government was hiding the truth—here was the proof.
Patsy Stinchfield sits in her office at Children’s Hospital and Clinics, in downtown St. Paul, surrounded by charts showing Minnesotans’ relative risk for measles, mumps, polio, and other diseases that seem, as with bomb shelters and bobbysoxers, like relics of an earlier, scarier time. Yet the diseases are still around. They’ve just been held at bay by vaccinations. “The only disease we’ve ever eradicated is smallpox,” Stinchfield says. “There was a time when we thought we’d eradicated measles, but obviously we haven’t.” She shows a recent newspaper clipping, framed beside her desk, of a tiny Minnesota boy hooked up to myriad tubes in the hospital, a victim of measles.
Officially, Stinchfield is the Children’s director of infectious disease immunology, staying on top of trends in infection and prevention. Unofficially, she is the state’s greatest vaccine evangelist, promoting the drugs wherever and whenever she can. She’s done this since 1987, when most people never questioned vaccines. She has two kids—fully vaccinated. “For that five minutes of pain and poking, you get a lifetime of immunity,” she says, her standard pitch.
Increasingly, the pitch has fallen on deaf ears. Though vaccinations have long been required in order to receive public education in Minnesota—no shots, no school—exemptions are made for religious, medical, or philosophical reasons. All you need is a notary to witness your refusal request.
“Look at this,” Stinchfield says and pulls up a graphic on her computer. It’s a square divided into four quadrants, representing different attitudes toward vaccination. In one corner, marked “action,” fear of disease meets no fear of vaccines—this is the majority of Americans: getting their shots without protest. The opposite corner, where no fear of disease meets great fear of vaccines, is marked “refusal.” Stinchfield circles the word with her finger. “This is the population that’s been growing,” she says. “The refusers.”
Last spring, a survey showed that Minnesota, usually as good about vaccinating as it is about voting, had dropped several percentage points in its immunization rates, falling from seventh to 20th among the states. Around the same time, the largest measles outbreak in years hit Minnesota, sending more than a dozen kids to the hospital with near-fatal complications. In about half the cases, the children were too young to be vaccinated. In the other cases, however, the children were old enough to be vaccinated but had not been—their parents had refused. The reason was almost always the same: fear of autism.