Death Threats, Hate Mail: Autism Debate Turns Ugly

The autism community reacts to a vaccine researcher's account of death threats.

ByABC News
October 30, 2008, 5:16 PM

Oct. 31, 2008— -- 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."