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Autism Debate Turns Ugly: Vaccine Expert Gets Death Threats

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyNov 6, 2008 5:41 PM

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You'd think that recent news about autism—i.e., the increasing amount of definitive evidence proving it's not linked to vaccines—would be vindication for Paul Offit, the prominent pro-vaccination advocate and medical director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. As you might recall, Offit sounded off earlier this year on the Hannah Poling case, offering an opinion that led to all sorts of name-calling and borderline hysteria. Now, it appears, the hysteria has made a sharp right into psychosis. ABC News reports that Offit has been receiving death threats (as in, more than one) from anti-vaxers. On a recent "Today Show" appearance, Offit revealed that "the threats [he] received included a 'phone call from an unidentified man who mentioned specific and private details' about Offit's family." And he's not the only one: Flu vaccine advocate Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, describes the following:

"Among the most egregious things -- I got a letter once railing against my involvement in vaccines and hoping that something serious would happen to me and hoping that something serious would happen to one of my children," he said. "I had people come to the door of my home and harass my wife and kids, so I no longer have my address listed in the phone book." And at one point, Poland said, someone broke into his lab and attempted to hack into his computers. As a result, Poland's lab is now locked down for security purposes.

Granted, leaders of anti-vax groups respond that they've also been the victims of harassment, with taunts like "baby-killer" hurled their way. None of this behavior is excusable. Just as physicians and scientists have a right to perform their research and discuss their results without fear of violence, so do vaccine opponents have an equal right to raise questions and incite debate. The only real difference here is that one side is backed by the overwhelming bulk of scientific evidence, while the other simply isn't. The chilling effect that can/will/has occurred on both sides as a result of harassment is of course dangerous to free speech, but for doctors like Offit and Poland it has a more insidious significance: By keeping these experts from speaking freely about the total lack of an autism/vaccine link, and the health hazards that come with shunning vaccines, we're endangering not only their first amendment rights, but also the health of children. So what should be done? Well, for starters, we can stop relying on doctors to provide the sole voices of reason concerning the lack of a link between autism and vaccines—aka, the CDC and other government agencies can lend a hand. After this coming January, maybe that could actually happen. Related: RB: While the Anti-Vax Movement Strengthens, Their Arguments Only Get Weaker RB: And So It Begins: U.S. Sees Big Measles Spike in Unvaccinated Kids RB: Autism and Vaccination Smackdown Part II: This Time, The Doctors Go At It

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