Minnesota vs. the measles: An essay by a supposed ‘side effect’

By Christiaan Tarbox
Sun Post Newspapers

“Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children!”
Aside from being one of my favorite lines on “The Simpsons,” this classic logical fallacy and appeal to emotion has been used to stifle critical thinking and further infantilize children whenever a phony moral panic popped into the view of overpaternalistic grown-ups, be it rap music, the latest Harry Potter novel or the Teletubbies. We use it whenever there’s a complex cultural issue that arrives and we need to avoid rational debate whenever possible, using kids as a shield to not only end any potential discussion, but to dangerously oversimplify the topic as hand as well.
Of course, there are a number of valid uses for this tactic, usually when the discussion is actually centered around the welfare of children, such as the right to an education, the right to have access to daily nutritious meals, or the right to have a roof over their heads.
Strangely, a lot of the aforementioned doomsayers are less thrilled with addressing these prospects if their tax dollars are at stake, but that’s neither here nor there. But the health and well-being of children is indeed important, and part of that means affording them protection from easily preventable diseases, right?
Pfft! Get out of town! As if! Wrong. Did you know that one shot of the polio vaccine is equal to five liters of autism? I know this because a YouTube video with choppy editing told me so. Actually, I’ve never watched such a video, but considering there’s actually a real thing in our country known as an “anti-vaccination movement” and that the president himself has embraced skeptical theories regarding the efficacy of vaccines, it sadly doesn’t surprise me that as of this writing, there have been 69 confirmed cases of measles in Minnesota in the state’s worst outbreak of the disease in 30 years. Sixty-six of those affected are children.
If this editorial narrative sounds familiar, you’re not wrong. More than two years ago, I wrote two op-eds on the dangers of the anti-vaccination movement and the fraudulent and long-debunked theories that drive it. I got a wide variety of responses: some were thankful, while others were less than happy with me.
I appreciate the emotions that this subject provokes, but the fact remains that we’re living in an age where we allow fringe conspiracy theorists to disseminate scientifically inaccurate information to the masses. In the case of the recent outbreak in our own backyard, the majority of those affected by the measles belong to the metro’s Somali-American community, who, according to Stat News, were the targets of anti-vax activists who attend community meetings and events and tout horror stories about the spectre of autism supposedly caused by vaccines.
“What they say is, ‘Remember, measles is just a five-to-seven-day disease. Autism is forever,’” a former Minnesota epidemiologist says in the Stat News article.
Well, at least half of that assertion is right. Autism IS forever, and I would know, because I have it.
I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a higher functioning form of autism, when I was 12 years old. Back then, both scientists and laypeople knew so much less about a spectrum of neurological disorders that currently affects approximately 62 in 10,000 people worldwide, per a 2012 review. Of course, diagnoses are higher today than they were in the 1980s thanks to advances in diagnostic criteria and public awareness, not because the cases grew exponentially for nefarious reasons.
Growing up with autism was not easy by any stretch. Even though I was a bright kid, I suffered significantly in my emotional, mental and social development. I had little to no friends, I had a poor grasp on social cues and niceties, my interests were narrowed and borderline obsessive, and every day ranged from being a mild inconvenience to an indescribable nightmare.
Add the fact that I dealt with depression, ADD and severe anxiety concurrently, and you’ve got yourself one messed up kid. By the time I graduated high school, nobody had a clue how or if I would survive in the outside world independently.
But here’s the silver lining in that cloud of hopelessness: my parents fought for me. Even though being diagnosed at 12 is fairly late by today’s standards, my folks got me all the help I needed, from psychiatrists to case workers. By my early 20s, a rather seismic “shift” in my socio-emotional state took place, and before you know it, I managed to move out, go to college, get my degree, own a car, live in my own apartment, get a job, become an award-winning journalist, find a stable and ever-growing network of amazing friends, and carve out a true niche for myself in Minneapolis’ artistic community.
And I did all of these things on my own, in spite of having to still deal with autism every day. And yes, it is forever. But if these anti-vaxxer dolts have their way, people like me will be regarded as nothing more than side effects.
I’m not going to go into the science of vaccines and the fallacies of the attitudes against them, but to see reports of communities being tricked into believing that life-saving vaccinations “cause” autism isn’t just offensive to me as an autistic man, but it’s downright evil. Parents are being led to believe their children are better off contracting rubella than to have a disorder which, while admittedly difficult, can be managed from an early age. They’re being led to believe their kids can’t thrive in adulthood because snake oil salesmen are using fear and lies to paint those with autism as the unwanted byproduct of supposed scientific malevolence.
Right now, children in Minnesota are suffering because of opportunistic liars with a severely misguided agenda. We need to fight this. We need to fight this garbage wherever we see it, whether it’s on social media or in person. I’m tired of seeing people like me being treated like the bogeymen because a small pocket of people aren’t willing to use their brains. Fight discrimination and anti-science with facts and compassion. Y’know, think of the children.

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]