September 25, 2011

"The Panic Virus"

Autism has become a fairly hot topic in the past few years, and I've been interested in the subject for quite a while.  I've read a couple of books previously about the subject, including Jenny McCarthy's book "Louder than Words."  Despite McCarthy's 'mother's instinct' and conviction that vaccines caused her son's autism, and that she was able to cure him through diet and therapy, I finished the book believing neither.  I ran across "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear" by Seth Mnookin at the library when I was looking for a new audio book to read, and it sounded right up my alley.

It's hard to even know where to begin.  This book is a wonderfully well executed look into the world of vaccines and the medical crisis of misinformation spread about the 'connection' between autism and the MMR vaccine.  As a young married man planning to have children, Mnookin heard many stories about vaccines from his friends - a lot of them had concerns about the safety of vaccines for their children.  He decided to explore the topic for himself and seek out the facts, and "The Panic Virus" was born.

Mnookin starts the book by speaking about vaccines in general, all the way back to the first inoculations created against Smallpox.  Vaccines have always had some controversy surrounding them, from the first time someone decided to score their skin and rub infected pus on it to inoculate themselves to the first polio vaccines and bad batches that paralyzed children after they were administered.  It's not a surprise that a controversy would come up regarding the MMR vaccine, mercury, the use of thimerosal and whether it's linked to autism.

Unfortunately, in this case, the medical crisis that follows the controversy is one of epic proportions.  There are schools in California where 40-60% of the children are not being vaccinated.  Dozens and dozens of children who could be hospitalized and even killed by diseases which are wholly preventable.  This is absolutely a health crisis.  The panic virus that Mnookin is referring to is misinformation itself, which spreads like wildfire with the help of the modern day media. 

Andrew Wakefield is one of the most major players in this story.  The doctor who first published a study claiming that autism and digestive problems were a direct result of receiving the MMR vaccine has since been stripped of his medical license.  A formal retraction of the article has been issued by the journal in which it was published, and it's been revealed that Wakefield had a financial stake in proving the link.  Before publishing his study, Wakefield filed a patent for an alternate measles vaccine, so if MMR stopped being used, he stood to make a good deal of money.

Wakefield was just the first in a long string of people spreading information with no basis in fact through the media.  Having an autistic child is not easy.  Some parents are dealing with children who are non-verbal, can never be toilet trained, are unable to show emotion, are violent or profoundly unable to take care of themselves.  It is absolutely a difficult situation, and I can see how these parents would WANT to reach out and grab hold when someone is giving them an explanation for WHY this happened to their child.  In my mind, that's what makes the behavior of those perpetuating this idea even more reprehensible and irresponsible.  They are taking advantage of parents emotions and questions about a condition whose causes are still largely unknown, and they're doing it to make a name for themselves.

Mnookin discuses Wakefield in depth, as well as David Kirby, author of the book "Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic."  Kirby added (and continues to add) a lot of fuel to the fire of parents who are blaming vaccines and the government's vaccine program for their children's autism.  Despite the lack of evidence of any link, Wakefield, Kirby, and Jenny McCarthy all have huge followings in the autism community, and continue to attend events, give talks, and provide information to parents all over the world.  To me, this is especially surprising the case of Wakefield, who has been exposed as an unethical doctor who basically fixed his research, was nonobjective and stood to gain financially from his own findings.  His research showed contaminated samples, and how much of a surprise can that be from someone who took his control samples by drawing blood from the guests at his own child's birthday party?  Yet he now lives in the United States, and continues to book speaking engagements and spread his ideas.

Though at least half of the book is devoted to looking at vaccines as they relate to autism, Mnookin also explores vaccines in general.  He gives great background information about studies regarding mercury poisoning and mercury content in vaccines, as well as some history of other public health scares and people mistrusting the government (for example the debate over fluoridation of the water supply).   Mnookin explores the reasons why people are able to believe in ideas that have no basis in fact, especially on emotionally charged issues, and how we decide how much proof is enough.  On of the major points made here is that you cannot prove a negative, that those like David Kirby who ask for the government to prove all vaccines are 100% safe for every single person are asking for the impossible.

Study after study has failed to find any link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  The British and American court systems have both conducted in depth, several year long investigations and found no causal relationship.  The doctor who most heavily promoted the idea has been stripped of his license.  Yet, people continue to insist that there must be a link that they "just know" that their child was made autistic after vaccination.

Within this book, you'll read several stories of sick children.  Children who have been hospitalized in pediatric and infant ICUs because they caught preventable diseases from kids who were not vaccinated.  Particularly distressing is the story of a six week old baby who couldn't fight off the pertussis (whooping cough) that she came down with before she was old enough to be vaccinated.  Can you even imagine knowing that your child died from something so preventable?

It's absolutely true that Mnookin is using these stories to appeal to our emotions.  However, there is also a point to be made.  Other than in this book, where have you ever heard the other side of this story?  I've heard accounts like Jenny McCarthy's in abundance - my child got the vaccine and s/he changed.  But as one parent of a child who died of whooping cough points out, she contacted the Oprah show and other news outlets and none of them responded with any interest in her side of the debate.  These parents deserve to be heard as well, and to be recognized for the hardship they've gone through.

The tragedy here is that children are being hurt.  Millions of dollars have been spent fighting a battle with vaccines that has no basis, when that money could have been spent on the actual children - autism research and tools for the children that are affected by autism.  Families whose budgets are stretched to the limits by trying to provide the best for their children are spending their money on 'miracle cures' and remedies based on the idea of autism as a bio-medical condition with a root cause in some vaccine or virus.  Meanwhile, Hib, whooping cough, and measles outbreaks are threatening other children with serious illness and even death.

I went into this book already confident that vaccines do not cause autism.  I came out of it appalled that the media is still perpetuating this myth, and that people are still believing it.  If you've got doubts about your child's vaccines, this is a wonderful book to read that will give you straightforward, scientific facts about the lack of evidence that there is any link whatsoever between autism and vaccines.  Beyond that, it will make you think about how you make decisions about what you believe and when to give up and admit that an idea just isn't so.  It's well written, well paced, and held my interest every step of the way.

In the epilogue, Mnookin returns to his baby boy and the future he sees for him:
"As my son grows older, I hope that ... he will feel empowered to make his own decisions and will have the self-confidence to challenge traditional wisdom. I also hope that he learned the difference between critical thinking and getting swept up in a wave of self-righteous hysteria, and I hope he considers the effects of his actions on those around him. Finally, for his sake and for that of everyone else alive, I hope he grows up in a world where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake."

1 comment:

Shana Baehr said...

Very interesting. 
I am always drawn to autism related stories. With my oldest nephew's diagnosis before the age of four, my sister-in-law has looked at everything to help Micah. I asked her once if she had any feeling one way or the other about what caused it. She is not convinced that vaccinations were responsible. Micah just changed and all the family could do was to help him have as full a life as possible. 
People are always hoping for an easy fix. It would be comparatively easy if all we had to do to prevent future diagnoses of autism was to eliminate vaccines. But...what if it is a combination of factors? Who's to blame then?