When Anti-Vaxxers 'Win,' Kids With Autism Lose -- & That's Heartbreaking

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As if moms don't have enough to worry about these days, a frightening and infuriating op-ed in the New York Times, "How the Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning," predicts a series of major measles outbreaks this year. And that's just one way the anti-vaxxers are "winning," while the rest of us -- especially our children -- are losing. Another shameful result of the anti-vax movement is explored in the piece: By continuing to perpetuate the myth that vaccines cause autism, we're failing to fully support autism research and resources.

For the families of autistic children we spoke with, this is a heartbreaking reality that affects their day-to-day lives.

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In the Times piece, Peter J. Hotez, a scientist and father of an adult daughter with autism, makes the case that while strong evidence points to possible causes for autism -- including genetics and exposure to certain drugs (like anti-ulcer medication Misoprostol) and chemicals (like the insecticide Chlorpyrifos) in utero -- scientists are still forced to waste their time debunking the vaccine connection.

In the meantime, more and more kids are getting sick with preventable diseases like measles, while children on the autism spectrum aren't getting the support they need.

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Measles is highly contagious, and can be lethal to children and infants, but due to advances in medicine, it was nearly eradicated in the United States. That is, until the anti-vaccine movement -- spearheaded in large part by former model and television host Jenny McCarthy -- made some serious waves. Though McCarthy half-heartedly changed her tune once the link between autism and vaccines was officially debunked, the damage was already done.

Every year, fewer and fewer people vaccinate their kids against measles and other highly contagious viruses and diseases. The Times article cites CDC data that shows in nine states in the US, less than two-thirds of children ages 19 to 35 months old have received a widely used seven-part vaccination that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and hepatitis B. On a national level, only 71.6 percent of children are vaccinated. This puts even the vaccinated majority at risk (the two-part measles vaccine is 97 percent -- not 100 percent -- effective), and keeps resources from autistic children and adults.

As Hotez writes: 

... I fear that such myths will be used to justify new rounds of hearings or unwarranted investigations of federal agencies, including the C.D.C. This would only distract attention from these agencies' crucial work, and the real needs of families with children on the autism spectrum ...

Unfortunately, it looks like this is a problem that's not likely to go away anytime soon, given the disturbing fact that the new president of the United States has a long history of spreading anti-vax propaganda, all but encouraged the anti-vaxxers during his campaign, and has discussed the creation of a dubious presidential commission to investigate vaccine safety.

More from CafeMom: My Daughter With Autism Relies on Public Education & I'm Terrified for the Future

For parents of autistic children, this is a frustrating yet all-too-familiar hurdle.

"Until they can tell me why my son was diagnosed with autism while his two cousins, the other kids in his karate class, and the kids on his flag football team were not -- even though they all received the same vaccinations -- the 'connection' between autism and vaccines does not exist," Natalie Person of Murrieta, California, whose 9-year-old son received his diagnosis at age 3, tells CafeMom. "What does exist is the fact the there is no known cure for autism."

Jerilyn McDermed, who is now a neurology nurse practitioner in Blue Springs, Missouri, has a 13-year-old daughter who was diagnosed with autism at age 11. Looking back, McDermed thinks that with the proper education, she probably could have identified it around kindergarten, maybe even when her daughter was an infant. But the resources and support just aren't there for new parents, she says.  

McDermed believes that her daughter's autism was caused by medical neglect in utero and during labor; she weighed nearly 300 pounds at the time, and she felt her doctors disregarded her physical concerns, chalking them up to her being overweight.

McDermed is convinced that a series of events including meconium aspiration, respiratory failure, sepsis, traumatic birth, and hypoxia likely contributed to her daughter's autism. Unfortunately, she didn't have the benefit of her medical training at the time her daughter was born. "There are so many factors there that, now, as a health care provider, I know can cause neurocognitive deficits," she says. "But when you attempt to search the causes of autism and those terms, the research just isn't there."

It's hard to speculate exactly what resources could be put toward autism research without the distraction of the anti-vax movement. But for families like McDermed's, the lack of research means a lack of support.

More from CafeMom: 10 Moms Share What They Want You to Know About Autism

McDermed firmly believes that if we as a society spent less time blaming vaccines and more time researching the actual causes of autism, her life -- and her daughter's life -- would be vastly improved.

Whatever the cause or causes of autism, until they're proven, parents of autistic kids will continue to feel left behind. And they have the anti-vaxxers to thank for that.

"When they continue to try and prove the connection between vaccines and autism instead of focusing on therapy and intervention that could actually help us," says Person, "it makes me feel heartbroken and helpless."

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