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Autism/vaccine activists likened to AIDS denialists

Posted May 27 2009 10:39pm

One of my big worries is that the public will someday turn against the autism community. We, and all segments of the disability community, all rely heavily on the public’s good will. One way we could lose that is if epidemics of infectious disease return and people point the fingers at “autism spokesperson” Jenny McCarthy. We as a group could be in for some real trouble.

One reason to blog and advocate against pseudoscience and dangerous celebrity advice is to make it clear that the autism community as a whole is not behind Jenny McCarthy and her crowd.

So you can imagine the dismay I feel when I search for autism related articles in the Nature journals and I hit upon this one, The dangers of denying HIV.

Why would that article come up using the search word “autism”, I wondered. AIDS denialism is a truly horrible movement in the world. It leads, quite clearly, to disease, suffering and death. Probably no where is AIDS denialism more a problem than in South Africa. The author of this brief note in Nature, Seth Kalichman, notes:

Inadequate health policies in South Africa have reportedly led to some 330,000 unnecessary AIDS deaths and a spike in infant mortality, according to estimates by South African and US researchers. This carnage exceeds the death toll in Darfur, yet it has received far less attention.

This is, he argues, due in large part to AIDS denialism—promoting the idea that HIV does not cause AIDS and encouraging people to forgo treatement.

The tragic events in South Africa have been exacerbated by AIDS ‘denialists’ who, Kalichman alleges, assert that HIV is harmless and that antiretroviral drugs are toxic. The author discusses the psychology of denialism, which he says is “the outright rejection of science and medicine”.

Dr. Kalichman makes it very clear that denialists are acting outside of the boundaries of decency:

Kalichman dismisses denialists’ attempts to portray themselves as intellectually honourable dissidents who question accepted wisdom. He draws clear distinctions between dissidence and denialism; the latter, he says, is merely a destructive attempt to undermine the science.

What does this have to do with autism? Dr. Kalichman groups vaccine-autism groups in with AIDS denialists in their tactics:

Groups that support intelligent design, doubt global warming, claim that vaccines cause autism, argue that cigarettes are safe, believe that the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were an intelligence-agency plot or deny the Holocaust all use similar tactics.

That is an “ouch” moment. To see that the outside world is starting to group autism activists with so many denialst groups is troubling, to say the least. If there are more outbreaks of disease that can be tracked back to vaccine rejectionism sparked by autism groups (for example, recent outbreaks of whooping cough ), we are in for a public relations nightmare.

If you don’t think the analogy to AIDS denialists is well earned, consider this passage:

Kalichman describes how quacks, like some of the academics involved, misrepresent their qualifications to create an illusion of authority. One, he claims, treats AIDS with hyperthermia, massage, oxygen, music, colour, gem, aroma, hypnosis, light and magnetic fields, each word followed by “therapy”.

We have certainly seen inflated qualifications and the list of therapies could easily be attached to autism.

It isn’t as though Dr. Kalichman hasn’t read up on autism, either. He concludes his piece with:

Action might have widespread benefits: Paul Offit’s tour de force, Autism’s False Prophets, claims that pseudoscientists and quacks have used similar tactics to parasitize the suffering of desperate parents by persuading them that vaccines cause autism. As Kalichman says, denialism “will not break until the public is educated to differentiate science from pseudoscience, facts from fraud”.

“denialism will not break until the public is educated to differentiate science from pseudoscience, facts from fraud”

I wonder if that time will ever come?

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