Why do fake rumors such as ‘vaccines will cause child autism’ work?

Note: This blog is based on a 2011 Quora post I did in response to the subject of false rumors re childhood vaccines. I actually forgot about my Quora response until I was reminded of it recently due to a conversation I had with a co-worker (a soon-to-be first time mom) who was full of worry.  Unfortunately there are many people like her who have allowed fears regarding their child(ren) drown out their parental happiness. So I decided to re-post my response (with some changes) here.

Many would chalk the susceptibility of the ‘childhood vaccines cause autism’ rumor to the lack of scientific and/or biological knowledge, when it’s primarily a result of parental fear.

‘Parents With Child’ statue in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, 2006 (Photo courtesy of Kelovy via Wikimedia Commons)

When you become a parent you want the best for your child. The fear of anything bad happening to him/her is always in the back of your mind (i.e., being hit by a car, disease, major fall, severe injury, etc.) – like some kind of worse case scenario. I have a young son and I still experience s a sense of queasiness whenever I think about him being harmed in any way or when I’m watching him do something that could potentially cause injury.

However for some parents this fear, almost paranoia, is with them at a high level every day. Of course some would say not without good reason. This culture of parental fear surrounding having autistic children, children with birth defects, etc. most likely started in the late 1950s. Physicians at that time were prescribing expectant moms with Thalidomide, a sedative used to cure morning sickness. Unfortunately, this same medicine caused thousands of birth defects such as missing, malformed or underdeveloped limbs. There have been a host of other medical tragedies since then that have made it into mainstream news – who is also a culprit in helping to produce our fear culture. We’ve seen lots of news stories about horrible medical accidents that have happened to children, which can create the atmosphere of a medical epidemic instead of the tragedy being an isolated incident. All of these actions have confirmed many parents’ fears about drugs/vaccines being harmful to children, experts be damned.

It is these type of parents who turn medical rumors into fact and spread this faulty knowledge to others. I’m not denying that some medicines and/or preventative measures can be harmful to children. As a parent you have to be alert to what can harm or heal your child. But if a parent allows their medical fears to overwhelm them then they can end up doing harm to their child(ren) whom they’re trying to protect. Yet some do fear – fear a lot – hence the vaccines = child autism rumor that won’t go away.

Parents shouldn’t act worry-free or as if they have no fears about their child. Denying your parental fears is not going to make them go away. You have to acknowledge them without letting them take over. If you let your fears take over you will continue to find more to fear which will put you in a vicious cycle that will never end. Staying informed without imagining the worse can be hard for the most worrisome of parents, but in the end it will make you a better parent and your child a stronger person.

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