Since When Is a Fast-Food Company an Expert on Autism?
Medscape Medical News
Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, Division of Medical Ethics at the NYU Langone Medical Center
April 29, 2014

Where does the antivaccine movement get its momentum?

Many of us think it's from celebrities. In some ways, the poster woman for the antivaccine movement has been Jenny McCarthy, who has been pretty vocal over the years on many, many talk shows and many, many forums about the fact that she thinks her son may have been injured by a vaccine, thus accounting for some of his developmental disabilities. But there are other antivaccine forces out there, and sometimes they come from surprising directions.

Who would have thought that Chili's, the chain restaurant, would get involved in the antivaccine movement? Well, they did. Happily, they have reversed their stance on this, but it's worth commenting on what took place because other companies could go down this road.

There is no evidence whatsoever at this point in time that vaccines cause autism. In fact, we know that autism is being detected earlier and earlier. Some people think [detection can be done] in pregnancy long before anybody has been vaccinated. There seem to be associations with older parents and a higher risk for autism. Other variables such as air pollution have even been cited as a potential cause of autism. Whatever the causes are, vaccines are off the table. Some people say, "What about the components of vaccines?" You find many, many studies showing that even when they take out the mercury, which has been out of American vaccines for 13 years, it doesn't do anything to stanch the terrible epidemic of autism. So autism keeps getting worse. People vaccinate less because they're worried about vaccines. The fears continue to be there but the science isn't there, even though the epidemic most certainly is.

So how did Chili's get in the middle of this? Well, they decided to support one of the autism organizations but they didn't do their homework. There are a number of groups out there that try to advance the interests of people with autism in their families, but some of them still promote vaccines as the cause. Chili's got itself in a position where they said that they are going to have a special day where they give all of the lunch proceeds at their restaurants to that particular group. Now, if you're a company and you want to do the right thing for families with autism or people with autism, you've got to do your homework. Chili's found itself quickly on the wrong side of a storm of criticism -- appropriately so -- from people saying that the vaccine-to-autism link is bogus, it's wrong, it's flawed; it doesn't sit on any evidence, and you should not be supporting this group.

Interestingly, they initially dug their heels in and said that they are going to support this group, but the pressure got so huge that they backed out. They didn't have a special day to support that particular autism group. There are a lot of autism groups out there; many of them are heroic and many of them do a lot of good for kids and families that have to deal with autism. If you want to be kind and generous and philanthropic, you don't want to be supporting bad science. You don't want to be supporting fears, myths, and ideas that undercut research on what the causes of autism actually are. You have to do your homework out there. Chili's didn't, and I think we can say that they did something unethical, although they corrected it.

If you're going to give money in the future, make sure you ask and make sure you know where it is going, whether it's from your employer, your office, or you personally. If you want to support [those dealing with] autism, you better check to see who it is that you're supporting and whether they hold views consistent with science.