Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism, A Book Review

By Rabbi David Shabati, MD  


Vaccines did not cause Rachel’s autism. Or Sam’s. Or Daniel’s. Or anybody else’s for that matter. The reason is quite simple – vaccines don’t and can’t cause autism.

Peter Hotez ought to know. He’s a board-certified pediatrician and one of the world’s leading scientists developing vaccines for ‘neglected tropical diseases.’ He’s also the father of Rachel, an autistic and intellectually challenged young lady.

What’s clear to all those who are interested in facts is that there is no ‘vaccine controversy’ just as there is no ‘shape of the earth controversy.’ Anybody who stands by the scientific method (meaning, that when they throw a steel ball in the air they know to get out of the way because they are confident that if they stay put, gravity will pull that ball directly onto their head or more simply, that scientific claims are backed up by data and facts, not mere conjecture) knows that there is no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism just at they confidently walk as far as they’d like around the world without fear of falling off the edge.

In fact, the data we have on vaccines is some of the most thorough and compelling that exists in the world today. Because of their prevalence, a meta-analysis of studies covering more than 1.2 million kids have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, that vaccines do not cause autism.

It’s true that vaccines are administered during the early years when autism is most frequently diagnosed. It’s also true that many of those same children drink milk and eat applesauce. As anybody who may have even casually glanced at a statistics textbook even once will quickly point out, correlation does not imply causation.

But for those who understand and live with autism, there are some other pressing concerns.

Current research on autism shows that changes in the brain indicating autism are present at least a year before the onset of any symptoms and are likely even evident prenatally. The very idea that vaccine-derived immunity can have such dramatic effects on brain structure and function is one without any scientific basis and belies the fact that autism is complicated. We now know of at least 65 different genes that may be involved.

Aside from a dry read about antibodies and neglected tropical diseases, “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism” is also Hotez’s personal journey with autism. With the permission of his daughter Rachel, he describes what it’s like for his family to raise an autistic child through her young adulthood. It’s touching and very real, detailing the ups and downs, successes and even regrets.

He points out that regrettably, because of the seeming constant ‘need’ to continue to prove that vaccines do not and cannot cause autism, far too little research and effort is put into actual causes and indicators of autism. With our limited resources, dealing with the anti-vaccine movement “deplete[s] a lot of the oxygen from the room with their nonsense and false allegations to the point where elected leaders … could easily lose track of what families with [autistic] children really need.” It’s why he describes “the dozens of anti-vaccine organizations and websites … to be both anti-child and anti-family. They place their own distorted ideologies ahead of the needs of children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], and their families” (167).

We are privileged to live in a world where we don’t have to worry about these diseases. But as Hotez very clearly demonstrates, it’s precisely our aggressive stance on universal vaccination that maintains this status. As is becoming painfully obvious, cities, neighborhoods, and communities that are less vigilant about vaccinations are seeing a reemergence of what would otherwise be considered historical scourges of mankind. It doesn’t have to be this way. It depends on how we handle this current crisis.

Hotez presents an important historical account of global disease in the past century, which consistently highlights the overwhelmingly life-saving effects of vaccines around the world. It’s not just about saving one or two children out of a million, but these are the most effective global public health campaigns ever. By UN estimates, “between 2000 and 2016 … 9 million lives were saved … by 2020, an additional 5-6 million deaths may be prevented” (32). It’s true that each year, 4 million children are still dying of disease, but it’s important to remember that just 50-60 years ago, that number was three times as great. When you stop to think about those numbers, they are simply astounding.

While somewhat technical (most lay readers have likely never heard of schistosomiasis, although might be fascinated what a quick Google search will teach them about the trematodes’ bizarre mating behaviors) and detailed in his descriptions of global vaccination efforts, Hotez gives both a historical reckoning and clear and convincing presentation on how vaccines have literally changed the world. There is no other public health initiative in the history of humankind that has saved more lives.

This is a book that combines not only professional expertise in the intricacies of vaccines science, but a personal account of how an unfortunately growing anti-science trend is affecting the lives of autistic children and adults.

Hotez leaves the reader with two main takeaways:

We need to be a lot more grateful for living in a largely disease-free world. Worldwide vaccination programs have been so successful that many of us erroneously think of the measles as an annoying rash, and not as deadly disease causing hospitalizations, leading to severe pneumonia and encephalitis (brain inflammation). Every so often, it’s important to take a moment to reconfigure and properly reset our perspective.

We need to encourage positive and meaningful scientific engagement. We are entering an era where ‘fake news’ rules. The more eccentric or wild an idea might sound, the quicker it spreads. Explaining immunology and how vaccines are responsible for literally saving millions of lives takes some biology background and a little patience. Frankly, for most of us who thankfully don’t see these diseases on a daily basis anymore, it can be a bit boring. But tell us a story about how the CDC is conspiring with Big Pharma and we’re all ears. But as we all likely know too well, clickbait doesn’t always make for accurate reporting.

In a collective mea culpa, Hotez is quick to call attention to his own profession and calling for effectively dropping the ball on public engagement. Scientists are not part of our national discourse on many issues, even those directly relating to their fields.

That needs to change. “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism” is Hotez’s shot across the bow. It’s part of Hotez’s effort to do just that by directly addressing the public, to speak to a non-scientific audience about the vital role that vaccines play in our modern health on both private and public levels. Hopefully, it’s a shot that will be heard around the world.