This week, San Antonio’s top law enforcement official, the man voters have tasked with prosecuting anyone accused of a crime or securing justice for victims, stated, unequivocally, that vaccines cause autism.
In a short video produced by the people behind Vaxxed: From Coverup to Catastrophe, a recent documentary that builds on the work of the disgraced scientist who’s been instrumental in propagating the long-debunked tie between vaccines and the developmental disorder, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood explained in detail why he believes “vaccines can and do cause autism.” It’s not just because of his own children’s health problems, which LaHood and his wife now believe were caused by childhood vaccines. Rather, LaHood insists it's his background as a lawyer, prosecutor and truth-seeker that led him to embrace a theory that countless public health experts say is not only misguided but dangerous.
“What I do is follow evidence,” LaHood told the Vaxxed filmmakers. “I’m an empirical data guy. ...Give me objective evidence, I’m gonna do what’s right with that information.” The segment, titled “Vaxxed Stories: The Prosecutor,” repeatedly stressed LaHood’s status as an authority, a government official and an arbiter of truth, with part of it filmed in and around the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office headquarters downtown. “I seek truth,” LaHood declared. “I mean, I’m a prosecutor for a living. So I look for truth wherever it leads me.”
LaHood’s role as a top public official turned anti-vaccine prophet is precisely what troubles experts like Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital, who in a phone interview with the Current Tuesday called the Vaxxed documentary “a bunch of pseudo-scientific crap.” Hotez repeated what most established medical experts say about the supposed link between autism and childhood vaccines—that two decades worth of research and investigation has roundly debunked it. “His (LaHood’s) word holds weight as a public official,” Hotez told us. “And what he’s doing is he’s putting children in harm’s way through these pseudo-scientific views.”
After we sent Hotez the Vaxxed video featuring LaHood, this was his response, via email: “Scary stuff...”
LaHood’s comments come as pubic health experts across Texas nervously watch vaccination exemption rates that continue to rise. As the Houston Chronicle recently reported, the number of Texas parents exempting their kids from vaccines for non-medical reasons has increased 19-fold since 2003, the first year Texas law allowed parents to opt out for so-called “reasons of conscience.” While they didn’t mention LaHood by name, city, county and state public health officials on Tuesday released a joint statement decrying LaHood’s now-public stance on childhood vaccines, calling vaccines “a public health success story” that has all but eradicated now-rare diseases like polio, diphtheria and measles. “But these diseases can suddenly return,” the statement warned. “Vaccinations are not just for protecting ourselves—they also protect the people around us. Children cannot make the decision on getting vaccinated but informed parents can.”
Yet LaHood says in his interview with the documentary producers that, “If this case had to be tried to a jury, I would be very comfortable trying this case proving that vaccines have a strong factor in causing autism.”
If you believe the kind of medical experts and researchers that lawyers like LaHood typically call to testify in court, that would be a tough case for the DA to win. The idea that vaccines cause autism dates back to a small 1998 study published in the medical journal The Lancet that involved 12 patients who, after receiving the MMR vaccine, started to show signs of what appeared to be autism. While other researchers were skeptical of the study from the beginning, the paper by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield was enough to scare a wave of parents in Great Britain and the United States away from vaccines. In outlining the facts conveniently skipped over by the Vaxxed documentary, the Washington Post recently recapped what ultimately happened with Wakefield's alarming study:
In 2004, Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer reported serious ethical violations by the 1998 paper’s lead author, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Deer accused Wakefield of having been paid by a law firm that had been planning to sue vaccine manufacturers and of subjecting some of the children to unnecessary, invasive procedures for the study. After the revelations, most of the researchers named as co-authors in the study disavowed the findings and withdrew their names from the paper. In 2010, the Lancet’s editors retracted the paper. Three months later, Britain’s General Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s medical license.
Wakefield has been credited as the director of the Vaxxed documentary, which LaHood in turn credits with helping push him into the anti-vaccine camp. But research conducted in the wake of the now-retracted Lancet paper has found no such tie between vaccines and autism, like this 2015 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association that found “no harmful association between MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine receipt and [autism spectrum disorder] even among children already at higher risk.”
Still, in the 11-minute video the Vaxxed producers released on Tuesday, LaHood credits a family friend who was “on the bench” for the pharmaceutical giant Merck as a research scientist with first making him skeptical of the safety of childhood vaccines (LaHood, who only identifies the guy as “George,” didn’t respond to follow-up questions Tuesday). Seeing the Vaxxed documentary, he insists, only solidified his belief that vaccines are dangerous. The video shows LaHood attending a local screening of the film. He addresses the crowd by saying more public officials should weigh in on the matter. "I would ask whoever's in office, an incumbent, and I would ask their opponent, 'Where do you stand on this issue?'"
As for the decades of research and the overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines are safe, LaHood hints that it's all part of a "deception" that has been "promulgated on us as a community, even by our own damn government."