When J.B. Handley told me about Jackson County, Ore., a few weeks ago, I wondered why no one had looked at autism rates there. The county of about 200,000 located just north of the California border has one of the largest populations of unvaccinated children in the nation. And, as Handley suggested, those kids' medical histories are natural subjects for studies on the cause-effect relation between autism and vaccines.
Well, as I contemplated whether I might find a way to follow up on this angle from 2,000 miles away, I learned that the PBS series FRONTLINE will air a documentary titled "The Vaccine War" this Tuesday, April 27, that will explore not only the conflict between the vaccine industry and parents who believe immunizations caused their children's autism, but also the situation in Jackson County.
In a news release on "The Vaccine War," FRONTLINE says it will lay bare the science of vaccine safety and examine the "increasingly bitter debate" between the "public health establishment" and a "formidable populist coalition of parents, celebrities, politicians and activists."
The release lays out the basic premise that, despite numerous studies that indicate vaccines are safe, a growing movement of parents remains fearful. "In some American communities," it says, "significant numbers of parents have been rejecting vaccines altogether, raising new concerns about the return of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough."
One such place is Jackson County, Ore., and its largest city, Ashland.
"Nowhere has the vaccine war grown more heated than in Ashland, Ore. -- an area that FRONTLINE learns is of high concern to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," the release says. "With an estimated quarter of the town's children entering kindergarten not fully immunized, Ashland is one of the least vaccinated places in America."
"If you read the list of ingredients about what you're putting intramuscularly into your child, it's scary." - Jennifer Margulis, Ashland, Ore., writer and mother
The Vaccine War Web site features a video clip with three Jackson County mothers who, the release says, are not convinced that vaccines do more good than harm and have used Oregon's religious and personal-belief exemption to avoid a state mandate that children be immunized.
"I think a child's immune system is so immature," says Jennifer Margulis, an Ashland writer and mother of four, who has taken advantage of the state's vaccine exemption. "If you read the list of ingredients about what you're putting intramuscularly into your child, it's scary."
The release quotes both Handley, who cofounded Generation Rescue and mother/actress/model Jenny McCarthy, whose son was diagnosed with autism and who now heads the organization.
"Something happened," McCarthy told FRONTLINE. "And when I say something, I mean a behavior, a trigger. Is it mercury? Is it the schedule? Is there just too many? My answer to people and what I've been telling them is, 'It's all of the above.' We don't know for sure, which is why we keep saying, 'Study it.'"
An "Autism Awareness Month" proclamation made by the Ashland mayor and city council two years ago suggested that the community isn't that much different from other states in terms of autism incidence.
"Oregon has one of the highest rates of autism in the United States," the proclamation said, "with the Oregon Department of Education reporting 1 in 98 students on the autism spectrum, and in Ashland, 1.1 percent of students have been diagnosed, which is the highest rate in Jackson County."
While that says Ashland has a higher incidence of autism than the rest of the state, it's worth noting that special education diagnoses are not medical diagnoses, and, according to Handley, no one has compared rates in the vaccinated and unvaccinated children in Jackson County.
In addition to concerns over vaccine safety, the release notes that government control over individual choice is another factor fueling the parental backlash.
"This is true even of individuals who see the benefits of vaccines as substantial," the release quotes political scientist Hank Jenkins-Smith. "They still want it to be a choice. They don't want it to be compulsory."