Microbe Matters Book Club: The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”

-Charles Haddon Spurgeon 1855

How many people do you know who haven’t vaccinated their children out of fear of giving them autism or mercury poisoning?

Have you or do you plan to vaccinate your own children?

Where did this fear of vaccines come from and why does it persist despite vastly overwhelming data pointing to their safety?

Why are we suddenly seeing outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough, diseases that we had thought controlled in this country decades ago?

Still Panicking about swine flu!

If you have ever thought about these questions go get a copy of The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin and start reading. This is an incredibly well-researched volume not just on the science behind the vaccine-autism controversy, but on the swell of emotions and public opinion that have allowed this claim to bleed over into mainstream culture and persist despite volumes of rigorously peer-reviewed research debunking the myth time and again. The importance of this movement from a public health standpoint cannot be understated, in some parts of the country we are dangerously close to losing herd immunity to many pathogens due to falling vaccination rates. We are currently seeing outbreaks of diseases in the US that have been effectively gone for decades: measles, whooping cough, HiB, and other pathogens are coming back and hitting the growing unvaccinated populations in our country.

Read on for a review of this well-written look into the vaccine-autism controversy…

Originally disturbed by a friend’s remarks at a dinner party that he would not be vaccinating his children out of fear of autism and then failing to provide any evidence as to why other than gut feeling, Mnookin began researching the vaccine-autism controversy in 2006. While it quickly became apparent that the science clearly showed no developmental defects due to the mercury-based preservative thimerosal (largely removed from vaccines after 2001) or any link between vaccines and the development of autism; it was less clear why people continued to put so much support behind a movement that was clearly not based upon scientific research. This aspect of the vaccine-autism controversy became his focus and what results is an enlightening and frightening look into how fear and desperation can trump science

What Mnookin describes is how well-meaning parents of autistic children and unscrupulous researchers intersected and were then embraced by the media. While multiple events in the US and abroad contributed to this movement, a paper published in 1998 truly ignited  Once the Wakefield paper was published in The Lancet in 1998 (it has since been fully retracted in 2010 and multiple authors have removed their names from the work, what does that tell you about the quality of the research?) the media picked up the story and only fanned the flames of fear in a population struggling to find out why autism rates were climbing so high and what was responsible. What the media didn’t say was that Wakefield had filed a patent for a vaccine that would replace the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine that he had implicated in autism and that he stood to make a large sum of money if the population switched to his vaccine. It was also unmentioned that the patients referred to Dr. Wakefield in this study came from lawyers and parent groups that were preparing to sue vaccine makers for damages, and this same group funded his research. Furthermore, he subjected these children to unnecessary and painful procedures such as colonoscopies and lumbar punctures without any ethical concern to their well-being. This man, while his research and been debunked and he has been found guilty of gross ethical and scientific misconduct in the UK, continues to be one of the key figures in the US anti-vaccine movement. Desperate parents refuse to acknowledge this track record, only seeing the potential for cure to an otherwise untreatable disease. Some even perceive the retraction as “proof” that he is right, continually insisting that the “establishment” is suppressing research that relates vaccines to autism.

Complicating the matter further was the US vaccine law implemented in 1976 in response to Congress pushing the Swine Flu vaccine that stipulates that the government will pay damages for provable vaccine-related injury. While this court existed for two decades prior to the Wakefield paper, in the early 2000’s when the anti-vaccine movement began to really gain momentum in the US the courts went from zero autism cases to literally thousands of parents seeking monetary compensation for their child’s perceived injury. However, in a court of law were facts and logic dictate the outcome the anti-vaccine testimony literally fell apart despite years in which to build a case and secure expert witnesses. Sadly for these parents with sick children, what holds up on a talk show with Jenny McCarthy and Oprah does not stand under analysis of facts as many of the scientists supporting the vaccine-autism link were shown to be snake-oil salesmen pandering to the emotions of vulnerable parents or simply incompetent.

Mr. Mnookin goes in to far greater depth in the vaccine-autism than I can begin to hope for on this blog. Meticulously well researched and full of clear-eyed analysis of the actual facts this is a book that cannot be missed if you have any questions about vaccines, their safety, and how modern society can take a scientifically unproven notion and turn it into a movement with significant consequences if it appeals to their emotions enough. It comes as no surprise to me that Mnookin opened his work with this quote:

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on”

The modern anti-vaccine movement exemplifies how this can happen and we are just beginning to see the public health consequences. I highly recommend The Panic Virus to anyone interested in the vaccine-autism controversy or anyone with children.

This book is a startling example of what can happen when the facts are abandoned for emotion and “mommy instinct” and everyone seemingly has their own version of the truth if they can simply yell loud enough. Thankfully, Mnookin is a reasoned voice cutting through the din of junk science and his words are worth listening to.

Works Referenced:

1.           Wakefield, A. et al. RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet 351, 637–641 (1998).


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