Death Threats, Hate Mail: Autism Debate Turns Ugly

A prominent infectious disease specialist's accounts of death threats he received from vaccine opponents exposes a kind of harassment in connection to fears of a link between vaccinations and autism, vaccine researchers say.

Dr. Paul Offit, medical director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and a vaccination proponent, recounted his experiences to Dr. Nancy Snyderman Thursday morning on NBC's "Today" show.

Snyderman said on the program that the threats Offit received included a "phone call from an unidentified man who mentioned specific and private details" about Offit's family.

"And then he hung up," Offit said. "But the implication was clear -- he knew where my children went to school."

Dr. Gregory Poland, director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and a vocal proponent of universal flu vaccination, says he is no stranger to such harassment.

"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.

But some people connected to groups that believe a vaccine-autism link exists say that they, too, have been the targets of hateful speech.

"I've been called a baby killer," says Rebecca Estepp, national manager of the autism support group Talk About Curing Autism. "One woman got into my face this summer and told me I was going to cause millions of children to die. Emotions are running high because this involves the health of our children.

"Nancy Snyderman and Paul Offit are carrying on about it, but it happens to us, too. I have sympathy because I know exactly how it feels."

While researchers note that the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence exonerates vaccines as a cause of autism, some groups still believe that the shots children receive when young are somehow tied to the condition.

But if the vitriol on both sides has proven one thing, it is that the issue is no longer about the science alone.

Michael John Carley, author and executive director of the Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership Inc. (GRASP), has himself been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. In his upcoming manuscript entitled "Cures, Vaccines, Research, and the Promise of Alarmist Rhetoric: Autism Politics 101," Carley notes that for some, the fears about unvaccinated children or widespread autism have taken secondary importance.

"[W]hat has dwarfed these doomsday scenarios is the vitriolic nature in which the argument has descended," he wrote. "The shameful tactics, hurtful statements and outright mismanagement conducted by both sides has made the 'cure' debate look like a friendly disagreement by comparison."

Carley, too, has experienced backlash from some of this anger for his view that no link exists between vaccines and autism. He says that he has personally received "tons of hate mail," although he has not yet received a death threat.

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