As a result, Offit has become the main target of a grassroots movement that opposes the systematic vaccination of children and the laws that require it. McCarthy, an actress and a former Playboy centerfold whose son has been diagnosed with autism, is the best-known leader of the movement, but she is joined by legions of well-organized supporters and sympathizers.
This isn’t a religious dispute, like the debate over creationism and intelligent design. It’s a challenge to traditional science that crosses party, class, and religious lines. It is partly a reaction to Big Pharma’s blunders and PR missteps, from Vioxx to illegal marketing ploys, which have encouraged a distrust of experts. It is also, ironically, a product of the era of instant communication and easy access to information. The doubters and deniers are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.
At this year’s Autism One conference in Chicago, I flashed more than once on Carl Sagan’s idea of the power of an “unsatisfied medical need.” Because a massive research effort has yet to reveal the precise causes of autism, pseudo-science has stepped aggressively into the void. In the hallways of the Westin O’Hare hotel, helpful salespeople strove to catch my eye as I walked past a long line of booths pitching everything from vitamins and supplements to gluten-free cookies (some believe a gluten-free diet alleviates the symptoms of autism), hyperbaric chambers, and neuro-feedback machines.
To a one, the speakers told parents not to despair. Vitamin D would help, said one doctor and supplement salesman who projected the equation “No vaccines + more vitamin d = no autism” onto a huge screen during his presentation. (If only it were that simple.) Others talked of the powers of enzymes, enemas, infrared saunas, glutathione drips, chelation therapy (the controversial — and risky — administration of certain chemicals that leech metals from the body), and Lupron (a medicine that shuts down testosterone synthesis).
Offit calls this stuff, much of which is unproven, ineffectual, or downright dangerous, “a cottage industry of false hope.” He didn’t attend the Autism One conference, though his name was frequently invoked. A California woman with an 11-year-old autistic son told me, aghast, that she’d personally heard Offit say you could safely give a child 10,000 vaccines (in fact, the number he came up with was 100,000 — more on that later). A mom from Arizona, who introduced me to her 10-year-old “recovered” autistic son — a bright, blue-eyed, towheaded boy who hit his head on walls, she said, before he started getting B-12 injections — told me that she’d read Offit had made $50 million from the RotaTeq vaccine. In her view, he was in the pocket of Big Pharma.