HILDA LABRADA GORE: The incidence of autism in the U.S. has increased dramatically over the last few decades. The first autism prevalence study, in 1970, showed an autism rate of less than one per ten thousand children. Today in the U.S., the autism rate is conservatively estimated at one in thirty-six children. Sometimes we hear the stats, but the implications don’t quite register.
Today we discuss what these numbers look like in real life with Dr. Toby Rogers. Toby has a profound understanding of the public health problem of autism—from how it impacts parents to the economy and the world at large. He has a PhD in political economy from the University of Sydney in Australia. His doctoral thesis, The Political Economy of Autism, explored the regulatory history of five classes of toxicants that increase autism risk and showed that the public health problem of autism actually starts with the political and economic problem of regulatory capture. He tells the story of how he took a dive into what increases the risk of autism, discusses the indirect and direct costs of caring for those with autism, and talks about the grassroots communities that are coming together to stop the autism epidemic.
Toby, let’s start with the fact that you were studying for a PhD in Sydney and then you completely changed fields. Is that right?
TOBY ROGERS: Yes, that’s correct. I felt like I had won the lottery when I got a scholarship to study political economy in Sydney. There’s a legendary political economy program there, and I had worked for six years to get a scholarship to go there. In the early days of my PhD program, I was feeling no pain. I was working hard—but Australia is paradise. I was going to the beach every weekend, and I was loving Australia. About a year into my program, I was dating an Australian woman whose son was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. I was curious. I take seriously this notion that we’re on a quest for knowledge. I was in this very old-school PhD program that’s very strict about doing it right—doing it by the book, being orthodox—and with a heavy emphasis on original source documents rather than secondary sources. When I wanted to understand autism, I went to the website of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC had a narrative about autism. But, being in a PhD program, I knew that my responsibility was to read the original sources. So, I looked up all the CDC’s footnotes, and I started reading their sources.
HG: Tell me what their narrative and sources were pointing to. What were they saying was causing autism?
TR: The CDC’s website on the causes of autism is a scientific embarrassment. They pursue a couple of different narratives. They’re fond of pointing the finger at medications that are no longer on the market. So, literally, on the causes of autism the CDC website will say, “Don’t take thalidomide.” Yes, thalidomide is toxic and was a public health disaster in the 1950s. It was never approved for the U.S. market. It hasn’t been in the U.S. market for at least forty years. It is preposterous to point the finger at a medication that’s not on the market anymore. They do the same thing with valproic acid, which is recommended for treating epilepsy but is contraindicated in someone who is pregnant. They’re pointing the finger at the wrong things, and it’s self-evident.
HG: These drugs can’t be culpable as one wasn’t even approved on the U.S. market and the other one has been contraindicated for some time for pregnant women. What explanation did they have for autism today?
TR: The embarrassment continues, because the CDC then pivots to saying, “Well, it must be genetic.” And they sort of vaguely wave at a handful of genetic studies. But if you read the studies, they don’t support the narrative that this 27,000 percent increase in autism since 1970 is genetic. And it gets even worse.
HG: I imagine it does. And you might not have to read the studies to understand that it’s not genetic. If a person has common sense, they can say, “Wait. There’s no autism in my family. Honey, is there autism in yours?” “No.” So that doesn’t hold water either.
TR: Correct. There’s no such thing as a genetic epidemic, the human genome just doesn’t change that quickly in the course of a generation. I saw a study once that said the most the human genome will change is 1 percent over the course of one hundred years. I ran that by a few geneticists, and they said, “No. That’s even an overstatement.” We’re not going to see a 27,000 percent increase in this disability if its root is in genetics. It’s preposterous to make that argument, and yet that’s the argument that the CDC has been making for the last thirty years. They’re still making it on their website and it’s absurd.
HG: Here you were, a PhD student not originally interested in autism, but because your girlfriend’s son had autism, you started looking into it and find this nonsense. What did you do next?
TR: First, you feel like you’re losing your mind because the CDC was this respected public health agency. Surely public health agencies aren’t lying to us—that would seem outlandish. So, I spent a second day researching this topic and then a third and fourth day, and the CDC’s narrative kept failing to check out. I started reading some of the skeptical literature. The arguments they were making seemed like a much better fit for the data than what the CDC was saying. So, before I knew it, I was spending six weeks, seven days a week, twelve hours a day doing nothing but reading about autism. I realized that I had stopped working on my original topic. I had to have a conversation with my supervisor about what was going on. I said to him, “Look, I was happy with the topic I was working on, but I have stumbled into what is quite possibly the biggest political economy story in the world right now. I’ve seen this pattern in the data, and I have a moral responsibility to change my topic and work on autism.”
Once I’d seen the pattern in the data, I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t in good conscience not say, “I have seen what’s going on with environmental factors that increase autism risk. I know that the CDC is lying. I know that politicians have no idea about the calamity that’s coming down the track.” I could not in good conscience abandon that work once I’d seen the pattern. It led to difficult conversations. Everybody knows that this topic is politically radioactive because of the question about vaccines. Everybody is skittish about it. To their credit, my department and my supervisor stood by me and allowed me to make the change to work on the political economy of autism.
HG: What if the CDC wasn’t lying but was just mistaken?
TR: It was interesting. At the university, there’s this PhD space where there are about seventy-five PhD students, all in a series of three different offices with a series of desks and computers. I would spend all day reading, and then I’d go into the break room for dinner with this sort of look in my eyes of shell shock about what I was going through. Throughout the day, when I would find an additional piece of data, I would break down crying because the situation is so much worse than people realize in the mainstream media.
I told one of my colleagues, a fellow PhD student, about what I was working on. I didn’t tell many people, only a couple students, and she said, “My housemate has a vaccine-injured son. Would you like to interview him?” I said, “Yes, I would.” So, I had coffee with them. This is another original source. At that point, I had heard all the stories about crazy “anti-vaxxer” conspiracy theorists—all the labels, stereotypes and name calling. That was the picture I had when I went to interview my colleague’s housemate. I met with him, and he was like me. We’re about the same age. He had a kid, and a well-baby visit had gone spectacularly wrong. Speaking with him about his journey led me to know that I was on the right track. This was an actual real person in the real world whose experience was backing up what I was discovering in the data.
HG: As you were digging, you found that not only was the CDC wrong in saying that it was genetic or due to these drugs that were no longer in use, but other factors were pointing to making this link between vaccinations and autism.
TR: Yes. I did a deep dive. I did literature searches on any possible toxic chemical link to autism. I did a deep dive into mercury from coal-fired power plants. I did a deep dive into plastics and fire retardants, and there’s some effect there. We’re seeing everything from coal-fired power plants, plastics, pesticides and EMFs having an effect on autism. But, the nine-hundred-pound gorilla in this debate is vaccines. I wanted to defend the CDC. I wanted the CDC to be right. I was perfectly happy with my life before discovering this topic. I did not want to discover that vaccines can cause autism, and yet it runs throughout the data. It’s impossible to miss if you do an honest evaluation of the studies on this topic.
HG: And yet, in the news we hear vaccines don’t cause autism. Who’s covering that stuff up?
TR: The pharmaceutical industry spends billions of dollars to shape the narrative about their products. They do qualitative research. They know how we make decisions. They write scripts so that, for every type of refusal of any product in the doctor’s office, doctors have a script for how you can get a patient to agree to these things. People watch TV, and they’re influenced by CNN, MSNBC and Fox. Cable channels, news sources, the evening news—they are all shaped by advertising from the pharmaceutical industry.
The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world that allows direct-to-consumer marketing of pharmaceutical products (the other being New Zealand). It’s a tremendous problem. Not only do patients get the wrong information or a too-rosy account of a particular drug, but it actually ends up buying off the evening news. That’s actually the bigger problem of direct-to-consumer advertising—no evening news channel will ask tough questions about vaccines or any other pharmaceutical product because they know that the pharmaceutical industry will retaliate by cutting advertising spending. Any news anchor who wants to pursue this story will get a phone call from the boss saying, “How dare you bite the hand that feeds us!” And so, there’s no investigative journalism happening in the mainstream media right now. It’s a tragedy.
HG: I think I understand now why you said this is a bigger political and economic story than you could have imagined. There are a lot of interwoven financial and political interests keeping the cap on this story.
TR: We’re on the verge of the collapse of an over two-hundred-year-old democracy because the pharmaceutical industry has poisoned our entire political system. It has poisoned our elected officials and our elections. It has poisoned all of our regulatory agencies—the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—all of these regulatory agencies are supposed to be protecting us, but they’re all captured by industry. They all end up working for the very industries that they’re supposed to be regulating and protecting us from.
It’s a political problem because we’re on the verge of political collapse, and it’s an economic problem as the costs of autism are catastrophic. In 2015, there was a very good study on the cost of autism, and it said that the cost at that time was two hundred sixty-eight billion dollars a year in the U.S.—and that was five years ago. They projected that by 2025, we’d be looking at one trillion dollars a year in autism costs just in the U.S. I was curious about a point of reference, and so I looked up the U.S. Defense Department budget, which is about $750 billion annually. So, one trillion dollars a year in autism costs is actually greater than the U.S. Defense Department budget, which is the largest single line item in the U.S. budget. There’s no plan for how to pay for this. There’s no strategy for how to pay for the educational, housing or health care costs associated with autism—and yet we’re looking at a trillion dollars a year in cost by 2025. There’s also a 2020 study out of North Carolina State that looked at the ten-year cost of autism in the U.S. over the period of 2020 to 2029. They’re projecting seven trillion dollars in autism costs in the U.S. over that period. That’s a disaster unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.
HG: Where is that money going? Can you break that down a little bit for us?
TR: It’s both direct costs and indirect costs. The costs of education go up when you need an instructional aide or you need additional support in the classroom. Furthermore, people on the spectrum often have a range of what are call comorbidities. They have gut issues and sleep issues, chronic pain and seizures. Health care costs go up. Often you have one parent, usually the mom, who leaves the workforce to care for the child. That person ordinarily would have been making money in the workforce and paying taxes on that. That salary drops out, both for the family and for wider society. What researchers do is they look at a basket of costs, both direct and indirect, and come up with the figure. The numbers suggest there will be additional costs of about $3.3 million on average if someone is on the spectrum, over and above the cost of parenting in general.
HG: We’re not even talking about emotional or physical costs—the exhaustion of the parents and the families, or the disappointment that the child who was perfectly well and meeting all the markers at their two-year appointment is suddenly behind in verbal skills and other things. It’s devastating.
TR: Yes. I meet lots of parents and kids on the spectrum, and they’re all dealing with various levels of emotional challenges, trauma and stress. I spent 2019 working to defeat mandatory vaccine bills in different states like Colorado, Oregon, California, New Jersey and Virginia. One of the things that is striking about these campaigns to defeat mandatory vaccine bills is the amount of moral injury inflicted on these parents and families by elected officials who refuse to listen. There’s also moral injury by the press which calls people names. I’ve interviewed hundreds of parents and kids on the spectrum, and I have never met a more courageous group of people in my life—just absolutely extraordinary human beings who will do anything for their kids and who are managing to keep it together in spite of enormous odds and enormous daily challenges. Conversely, I’ve never seen such cowardice on the part of the media and the politicians. It’s outrageous. The moral injury that the pharmaceutical industry inflicts on these families is also a crime. There are many crimes here. There’s the crime of producing a product that’s toxic and trying to sell it. There’s the crime of mandating this toxic product for people who don’t want it. And all of the gaslighting that goes on of vaccine-injured children and their families—it’s just outrageous. I’ve never seen a level of moral injury like that. I don’t know what to do about it. I’m at my wit’s end. I want to learn from many of these parents who’ve been in this fight for a long time because this work is hard on the soul. The pharmaceutical industry is evil at this point.
HG: Do you feel alone in this work?
TR: No. There’s a beautiful community that’s forming—and there are various labels for it. Sometimes the parents of vaccine-injured kids are called “warrior moms,” “warrior mamas” or “warrior dads.” There are also a number of leaders who have pushed into this space. Bobby Kennedy is extraordinary. Andy Wakefield does beautiful work. Del Bigtree is on TV every Thursday talking about these issues. I’ve actually found my tribe. I’ve found a group of people who are so beautiful. It’s just incredible, and yet you lose friends and family. The costs of working on this issue are enormous because there are various people who don’t get it and don’t want to get it. They are terrified by what I’ve discovered and don’t want that information getting out. You lose some and gain some other friends along the way.
HG: You seem to have taken on the burden and the emotion of these families despite not being believed when talking to your own friends and family about this.
TR: I am more than happy to be a voice for families. I know their stories, and I’m more than happy to be a warrior in support of them, alongside them and with them. It’s a family at this point. Everybody in the movement loses friends and family. The losses are enormous. There are parents who lose their kids to SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]. There are families whose children lose speech and eye contact. I’ve lost friends and lovers over this topic, but it’s essential work. There is no other choice. We have to fix this as a society. The course that the U.S. is on right now is toward collapse. The U.S. is headed over a cliff because of autism costs. We create one hundred thousand new autism cases in the U.S. every year because of this insane vaccine schedule that’s bloated and completely untethered from medicine and health. And then there are many other toxic chemicals that we put into kids. We have to resolve this.
What’s beautiful about being around all these warrior moms and dads and working together is these parents have figured out what it’s going to take legislatively to end these epidemics. They have more wisdom than everybody at the CDC put together. There’s this thing in the social science literature called “popular epidemiology.” It’s epidemiology from below. It’s the wisdom that people gather through lived experience and their own independent research, common sense and logic. What we’re seeing is this remarkable moment in the history of popular epidemiology where parents have figured out the causes of an epidemic a good twenty years before the mainstream medical and scientific community has figured it out. It’s remarkable and fascinating. On the other hand, it’s heartbreaking. There are so many crimes here. There’s the crime of producing a toxic product and trying to sell it.
HG: Do you see hope for the future?
TR: I do. The moms sharing their stories have given me hope. There’s only one way that this can turn out, and it’s the right way. It’s elected officials listening to Bobby Kennedy and doing the right thing and putting fewer toxic chemicals into kids. That means rolling back the vaccine schedule to maybe one vaccine or none. I personally think the notion of a vaccine schedule itself is barbaric. One-size-fits-all medicine is absurd in 2020. What is necessary is personalized and individualized medicine.
Functional medicine and integrative medicine know how to respond to coronavirus much better than mainstream medicine. We’re in this moment where paradigms should be shifting. The current paradigm doesn’t work. We know what the better paradigm is, but politically and economically it’s difficult to get there because there are a number of stakeholders who are getting rich off of the old broken paradigm. They don’t want to change their ways. They can buy off the political system, and they can buy off the media. This paradigm should have shifted twenty years ago. We should have recognized right away what was happening with the autism epidemic and that it was linked to environmental factors, but that hasn’t happened yet.
There are hundreds of thousands of parents who have woken up to this issue, parents who understand what happened to their kid. They’re becoming an electoral force. Some elected officials are starting to get it. More are going to get it every day. As the costs and cases of autism continue to mount, sooner or later the political system is going to have to turn to the Weston A. Price Foundation and to Bobby Kennedy and to Del Bigtree and to warrior moms and dads and to people like me and you because we actually do know the way out of this terrible valley. If Bobby Kennedy was head of the CDC, we could end the autism epidemic in twenty-four hours. I genuinely believe that. If we had a proper head of the CDC, if we had a proper head of the FDA, we could end the autism epidemic in twenty-four hours. We know how to do that now.
HG: That would be amazing to see happen. You said “popular epidemiology,” right? We call that the “up-wising” of the crowds. We’re getting wisdom from the grassroots, and I think that can change everything. I’m happy to hear you say that it’s happening. Before we close, I want to ask you the question I pose at the end of a podcast. If listeners could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend?
TR: Don’t ever get another vaccine! I think it’s simple. I think the evidence is overwhelming that the flu shot is not a good idea. It has all sorts of toxic chemicals that you don’t want in your body, and it’s very bad at stopping the flu. That’s the shot that a lot of adults get. Shingles shots are also a bad idea. The best available data on vaccine benefits and harms comes from Peter Aaby and Christine Stabell Benn at the Bandim Health Project (bandim.org/). Their research shows that every single vaccine on the U.S. schedule causes more harm than benefits. They have an extraordinary forty-year dataset. They have looked at the numbers for forty years. None of the vaccines on the U.S. schedule produces more benefits than harm. That’s the best scientific evidence that we have. I would not vaccinate my kids, and I would not allow my parents to get the flu shot or the shingles shot. When shots are offered at work, I wouldn’t get those either. The evidence is terrible in support of these products. None of the vaccines on the U.S. schedule has ever been tested against a saline placebo. That’s a scientific crime. It’s a crime against humanity. These things are not good for people’s health. The evidence is overwhelming that vaccines are causing harms for all levels of society. Don’t get another shot.
Wise Traditions podcast episode 277 was recorded on November 6, 2020.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Summer 2021🖨️ Print post