Monday, April 04, 2011

Health book review -- The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, by Seth Mnookin

In his book The Panic Virus, journalist Seth Mnookin takes aim at the enduring myth (believed by about a quarter of U.S. parents) that
childhood vaccines can lead to autism or other developmental disorders.

Mnookin, a Vanity Fair writer and a longtime media reporter, shines a particularly blinding light on journalists, who have often been too eager to uncritically repeat frightening vaccine conspiracies and, in some cases, publish their own gotcha coverage, exacerbating the panic without the evidence to back it up.

Here are a few reviews from newspapers around the country, compiled by The Week magazine.

“It takes guts to write a book informing aggrieved parents that they’re wrong about the source of their child’s disorder,” said James E. McWilliams in The Austin American-Statesman. While he’s “consistently respectful of the emotional pain that autism can cause,” Mnookin “pulls no punches” when assigning blame for the vaccine scare. He’s mounted a devastating case against various opportunists—from journalists to doctors to personal-injury lawyers—who’ve profited from playing on parents’ fears. Yet his work might be most interesting when it explores why “so many well-educated Americans” have proved susceptible to the autism myth.

The principal profiteers are fairly easily dispatched, said Susannah Nesmith in The Miami Herald. Chief among them is former British surgeon Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study linking vaccines to autism continues to be disseminated despite the fact that it’s been thoroughly discredited and was eventually retracted by the medical journal that first published it. Wakefield “stood to gain millions” on an alternative vaccine, and just last month a rival journal released investigation results indicating that he had actually falsified key data in his study. Mnookin is “unsparing” in his critique of the media’s role in keeping debate about the issue alive, said Sandra G. Boodman in The Washington Post. Even as evidence for the safety of immunization shots became overwhelming, “ratings-hungry” producers treated the argument as unsettled. Unvaccinated children have died as a result—of mumps, whooping cough, and other diseases that vaccination once defeated.

Mnookin rightly identifies a larger cultural trend as the true cause of the immunization panic, said John Wilkens in The San Diego Union-Tribune. In the Internet era, studies like Wakefield’s never die and conspiracy theories flourish: “The like-minded find each other and form communities online, reinforcing their biases and their certitude.” Mnookin calls the trend “cognitive relativism,” and shows us how it’s creating a world in which facts and true expertise can’t win arguments against fears and suspicions. When one consequence is that the population at large is now threatened by the return of 19th-century diseases, Mnookin’s warning is “a message too important to ignore.”

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