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The Refusers

Getting your shots used to be as American as motherhood and apple pie. Now a small but vocal group is saying no—with
deadly consequences.

The Refusers
Photo by Jesse Knish

(page 1 of 4)

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.

Comments may be edited for length, clarity, or appropriateness.

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Comments, page 1 of 6 1 2 3 4  ··· 6 Next »
Dec 16, 2011 11:20 pm
 Posted by  Robyne Rohde

I am the mother of Nick Rohde, a child featured in this article and want to make clear that nearly every fact written about our son is wrong. We have had 100's of articles written about our son but this article is the most poorly written I have ever seen.

First of all my two boys are twins, yes they were premature and while Nick was 3 lbs, 11 oz at birth, his twin brother who is NOT autistic was 2 lbs, 10 ozs and both were healthy 25 lb babies at 12 months.

To correct some of the numerous errors in this article, BOTH my boys were vaccinated. My boys are fraternal twins, which means they do not have the exact same genetic makeup therefore when they were vaccinated Nicholas was not able to pass the toxins through his body as his brother did.

And let me tell you something Mr. Gihring, the research we performed regarding our son's autism wasn't from the University of 'Google', (what a demeaning remark), rather the research we used to determine the most appropriate treatment plan for our son were from medical books, validated research studies, information obtained from medical libraries, physicians, and experts in the field of neurology, gastroenterology and nutrition.

The information in this article is filled with unsubstantiated facts about our son and autism in general. The ignorance this author displayed about the causal relationship of vaccines to autism was most certainly taken from the ‘University of Google’

Mr. Gihring, your investigative capabilities are a disgrace to journalism.

I am ashamed that my family is associated with this article. Most of all I'm ashamed my son is associated with such a biased article whose purpose was to belittle families who are making intelligent and informed decisions regarding vaccinating.

One last thing. Our son is NOT the equivalent of a 2 year old and I haven't seen a 'blank' look on my son's face since he was first diagnosed. BEFORE we began treatment.

Shame on you, Mr. Gihring and shame on you Minnesota Monthly!

Dec 19, 2011 10:29 pm
 Posted by  PJC

Wow. I cannot even begin to list the numerous untrue statements in this article. From the ridiculous (and totally unsubstantiated) subtitle about "deadly consequences" to the final comment from someone who promotes vaccines for a living, it is nothing more than thinly-veiled pro-vaccine propaganda.

The author highlights two children whose lives were absolutely devastated by vaccines - including one whose lifelong care is being funded by YOU - the taxpayers. And he still somehow manages to gloss over the fact that it's VACCINES that have frequent and well-known "deadly consequences".

He demeans those who blog about their children's death or injury because of vaccines. These are parents who spend years researching vaccines after their children are struck down by them, and who discover the inconvenient truth about the complete lack of safety data for the US vaccine schedule. They often have no other venue through which to speak the truth but websites and blogs. But the author dismisses them as being "experts in their own minds".

He then turns around and gives an entire page of his article to a woman with absolutely NO experience in vaccine injury - but who happens to have a blog in support of vaccines - as if her opinion somehow has incredible merit! One has to wonder if the local fame of this woman's father influenced the author's choice in giving her a voice here...

Patsy Stinchfield plays up the hospitalization (actually only because it was pushed by the Department of Health) of the children with the measles last year, but somehow fails to mention that several of the people who got the measles were FULLY VACCINATED for this disease! She also claims people don't fear infectious diseases - because "You've been vaccinated. You're out of the woods. Game over."


She (and everyone else) knows fully well that the only way you truly get lifelong immunity from the measles is by -- actually getting the measles.

Dec 20, 2011 11:26 am
 Posted by  VaxYourChildNow

Ah, the "deadly consequences" might refer to the fact that unvaccinated children die from vaccine-preventable diseases on a regular basis, and pass on those diseases to helpless infants. Ten infants died of pertussis in California from an outbreak caused by an unvaccinated child in a waiting room. Those are your deadly consequences. And to promote contracting measles as a better way to acquire immunity than the vaccine itself makes me pray to God you are not a parent. If so, you ought to be arrested. Any parent who willingly exposes a child to a deadly disease is unfit. Period. Your comment betrays the danger, selfishness, and downright scientific illiteracy of this anti-vaccine movement.

Why does your opinion matter on vaccines but another parent's not matter? Would it be worthy of a magazine quote if one of the many heartbroken parents whose child died from a vaccine-preventable disease acquired from an unvaccinated child wanted to speak? Shelby is a voice right now for thousands of parents whose children have been injured or killed by unvaccinated children (more accurately--their parents) because she is a good communicator and they ask her to speak for them. Her platform, judging from her blog, comes from the stories of other parents. Other parents. That's who you'll be going toe to toe with next, not the "big bad public health authorities." We are fighting back, because our children's lives matter too.

Dec 20, 2011 01:25 pm
 Posted by  sagacious

Like most unquestioning parents, I brought my kids in for their “well child visits” right on schedule. With those visits came the routine vaccinations. I didn’t bat an eye because I trusted that adverse events were an extremely rare occurrence. Fast forward 8 years; my son has encephalopathy and autism among many other diagnoses. My husband and I both have scientific/medical backgrounds. We absolutely relate our son’s disorders to the adverse events of vaccination. We’ve been advised by several medical professional to give our son further vaccinations.

The fault with the National Immunization program is that it’s one-size-fits-all. It’s black and white. It’s polarizing. Parents in my situation are called “anti-vaccine”, “scientifically illiterate”, and now “killers”. It’s ridiculous. Blaming parents of vaccine injured children is inexcusable. If public health advocates want a continuing vaccination program they need to address the source of the problem- vaccine safety.

Dec 20, 2011 01:29 pm
 Posted by  sagacious

We’ve been advised by several medical professional to NOT give our son further vaccinations.

Dec 20, 2011 08:18 pm
 Posted by  TJK

How telling is this statement from Kris Ehresmann, the director of Infectious Disease Epidemiology:

"She applauds thoughtful parents, but when they “start asking about things that have never been questioned,” she says, “it’s a recipe for disaster.”

Lets just think about that for a while shall we? Does Ms. Ehresmann really want us to just blindly accept that our drugs and medicines are rigorously tested for safety? Tell that to the thousands of victims of Vioxx.

One thing she would rather not be questioned on is why the combination of vaccines in the schedule AS DELIVERED TO CHILDREN has never been subjected to study by the CDC.

It is being studied independently on primates however, and the early results are likely the "disaster" Ehresmann is referring to.

It is very unfortunate that fear of disease ("death", is their wording, actually)is being used by the medical community as a tool to tug at the emotions of young mothers in order for them to comply with an untested combination of vaccines "without question".

When we lose the ability to question authority, we lose our freedom.

Dec 20, 2011 10:15 pm
 Posted by  maurinemeleck

I recently had eye surgery and it's difficult to do but, but I couldn't let another minute go by without responsing to this outrageously biased article with numerous errors. Having been raised in MN adds to my anger. The autism numbers are not 1 in 160 but 1 in 110(according to the CDC) and those numbers are of 8 year olds from as far back as 2006. No doubt much higher now. Andrew Wakefield was the scapegoat and his case study has been verified by more than 5 studies all over the world. Yes, people who question vaccine safety are very educated; they have to be because health officials do not give them them the negative side of vaccines. If the writers of this article think that they only need to help parents understand the importance of vaccines and they will comply, they are dead wrong. This has nothing to do with Dr. Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, the internet(but God bless it) ad nauseum. It is about our sick children and the tens of thousands of parents who took their normally developing children for vaccines only to find that afterwards they regressed into autism. When is someone going to study our children? Forget the communication problems that you mention. Our children are medically sick. Scratch the word autism from the blackboard. They have a metabolic disease and suffer from encephalopathy(not autism), oxidative stress, immune dysfunction, inflammatory bowel disease. We don't vaccinate our second, third children and they are incredibly healthy. One can recover from , as you call it autism. Hundreds of children have through biomedical methods. Until that all important study of vaccinated vs unvaccinated children is done-those of us with sick children will not believe a word you say. The same agencies and companies that test vaccine safety are the same ones that mandate and approve the vaccine program. Why does anyone call this science.?
Maurine Meleck
grandmother to two vaccine injured children, one recovered.
Canary Party of South Carolina

Dec 21, 2011 07:40 pm
 Posted by  babybea

I have a ten month old daughter whom I love and adore. Like all parents I would do everything and anything I can to protect her and keep her safe. I am fortunate that for now I can. In January she will be attending day care for the first time. She is too young still for some of the vaccines and is therefore at risk. When she goes to day care I will not be able to protect her from the children whose parents made the decision not to vaccinate or from the illnesses she could contract. And, ultimately I cannot protect her from the death that could result from these illnesses...but you can.
I believe as a fellow human in this world I have a serious obligation to do my part to be kind, thoughtful and considerate of others. It is my moral obligation to do whatever I can to not only protect my own baby but to protect yours as well. I vaccinate my child because she is valued and important. I vaccinate my child because your child is valued and important too.

Dec 21, 2011 07:50 pm
 Posted by  Minnesota Mother

My parents' generation grew up in the age of polio, where parents warned their children not to play on a certain block because that's where their classmate who got polio lives. A few short years later, these parents, my grandparents, were lining their children up to receive a polio vaccine.

60 years later, we have a generation of parents who know nothing about polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, or diphtheria. We have been lulled into complacency about diseases that seem to be a fable from long ago while we simultaneously face a new disorder our grandparents had never heard of: autism.

No good answer yet exists for what causes autism, so parents are left scouring the internet for anything that will give them answers, and Generation Rescue, the Canary Party, and Age of Autism have filled in the gaps with an answer that seems plausible.

But vaccines do not cause autism.

We are fortunate to live in a state with excellent public health officials like Ehresmann and infectious disease specialists like Dr. Stinchfield. Now the parents are pushing back and standing up for public health. Ashley Shelby and the many parents who have contributed to her blog provide a valuable service for parents who are confused by anti-vaccine misinformation. Because of such officials, doctors, and parents, the vaccine goose chase may be abandoned and we might find a cause of autism. Plus, our children may never know polio or measles.

Vaccinate your children.

Dec 21, 2011 11:30 pm
 Posted by  PJC

You have a daughter you love and adore, and you will do anything you can to keep her safe.

But imagine that you did everything you were told you needed to do to keep her safe, and you blindly trusted that our government had done the proper safety studies on the multitude of vaccines they told you she needed. And imagine that when she got 8 vaccines in one visit (at 2 months of age - as is the current MN recommendation) she began to have horrible seizures, ran a temperature of 105 degrees, screamed and writhed for hours until she finally collapsed into a semi-comatose state for days afterward.

And imagine that she was never that same, perfect baby again. She had constant rashes, ear infections, diarrhea, and was always inconsolable. And imagine that when you took her back to the doctors who insisted she needed all those shots, they assured you that this was "normal", and that it couldn't possibly be a reaction to the vaccines.

But imagine that you knew down deep that this poor, helpless, and now very sick child had been injured by those vaccines. So you start to do some research, as any parent who loves and adores their child will do.

And imagine that you discovered that our government has NEVER done a safety study on the combination of vaccines they gave your daughter that day. And you discover that the FDA accepts studies done by the vaccine manufacturers themselves as proof of vaccine "safety" when they approve these products.

And you discover that the U.S. government has known that vaccines cause autism for over 20 years, but that they continue to assure people that they don't, even as thousands and thousands more children like your daughter are struck down every year. And that you can't do anything about it.

And you realize that the fear tactics you fell for regarding treatable diseases like the measles and mumps were NOTHING compared to the lifelong ravaging of your once-perfect baby's brain and immune system by unsafe vaccines.

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