Correction appended: April 7, 2014
Today's tip of the tinfoil hat goes to the antivaccine kooks who nearly contaminated one of their biggest victims. This time it wasn't just a child who became infected with a vaccine-preventable disease or an entire community of children and adults coming down with measles (hello, New York City and Orange County, California) or mumps (you too, Columbus, Ohio). This time it was poor Chili's, the restaurant chain that tried for a feel-good and do-good moment, announcing that it would donate 10% of Monday's revenues to the National Autism Association (NAA), in recognition of Autism Awareness Month.
Good for you, Chili's — and good for you too, NAA, for looking out for struggling kids. Except there's this, from the NAA's website: "Vaccinations can trigger or exacerbate autism in some, if not many, children." Worse, there's this: "While mainstream science discounts vaccinations as a cause, members of the National Autism Association feel vaccinations have triggered autism in a subset of children."
Chili's got flamed on Facebook and elsewhere for cozying up to crazy and canceled the planned donation day, which is good. The company did the right thing and the antivaxxers lost a round. But the larger, more troubling issue is what poseurs like the NAA are doing hiding in plain sight anyway. The phrasing the group chooses, all by itself, ought to disqualify them from dispensing purported wisdom. When you open by acknowledging that "mainstream science discounts" the very case you're about to make, you have pretty much bankrupted your argument before you begin.
Of course, in this case the word mainstream, which ought to suggest credible, is code for something else entirely — for the elite, the bought-off, the blinkered, the usual cabal of Big Pharma, Big Government and the media. The truth, the NAA and others will tell you, is to be found outside of the mainstream, in the crazy, swirling eddies of the Internet and the conspiracy blogs and the actresses and models who refuse to vaccinate their children because it's "the best decision" for them, as shoe designer and TV star Kristin Cavallari put it. Never mind that the mainstream includes virtually every serious medical institution, journal, governmental body and health-policy NGO in the world. Never mind either that the antivaxxers never begin to explain how — or why — this vast conspiracy would have come together to hurt children. Who you gonna' believe, the scientists or the celebs?
The NAA is not alone in gift-wrapping rubbish to make it look real. There's the far more odious National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), which touts itself with the giveaway motto, "Your health. Your family. Your choice." The implication is that you, the discerning parent and information consumer, should make that same "best decision" Cavallari did. Of course, the NVIC does not mind helping you along, and so its homepage menu features such helpful tabs as Injury Compensation ("The vaccine injured can apply for aid"), Informed Consent ("The human right to voluntary risk-taking"), and yes, the Vaccine Victim Memorial ("Honoring those whose lives have been lost or forever changed by vaccination").
O.K., so let's honor lives that have been lost or changed. Let's honor Jeremiah Mitchell, 10, profiled in a devastating piece in today's USA Today, who lost both arms, both legs and parts of his eyelids at age 6 after he contracted meningitis — a disease against which his parents did not vaccinate him. Let's honor too Brady Alcaide, who, as described in the same story, died, unvaccinated, at 9 weeks old, after he contracted whooping cough.
Simply invoking the "your choice" talisman does not mean that you are making a smart or informed or morally defensible choice. And while we're on that, let's be clear about one thing: the people who have the most at stake in the antivax follies are the kids, who get absolutely no choice at all. Instead, they are denied the protection their no-doubt nonautistic, fully vaccinated parents received when they were their age. For those babies, the "voluntary risk-taking" the NVIC applauds is nothing of the kind.
If there is anything good about the stubborn, gum-on-the-shoe nature of the antivaxxers — the way they won't go away no matter how hard science tries to scrape them off — it's that the toll their nonsense is taking is finally becoming evident. The rise in measles and mumps this year is no accident, nor is the 2010 whooping-cough outbreak in California — nor are the lost lives or the ruined bodies of children like Jeremiah and Brady. A blandly named website can conceal all manner of deadly mischief. Medical science, on the other hand, usually plays it straight.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the surname of Kristin Cavallari.