Dissecting the Panic over Immunizations

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former senior writer for Newsweek, where he covered media, politics, and popular culture. His new book, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, looks at the way science and popular culture have diverged on the issue of childhood vaccinations and the risk of autism.


Seth Mnookin

Comments [21]

Levi Walalch from Reston, VA

Sorry, one more point that I forgot to mention. I think the reason why some people are affected by anecdotal evidence much more than scientific studies is this: we are not evolved to coldly analyze data. Up until very recently, the population at large knew nothing of science, data, etc. Everything that was known by most people was either due to observing it with their own eyes, or by hearing about it 2nd or 3rd hand, ie stories. As for personal observations, they can only go so far and this is why most of us are able to suspend that necessity and trust in our fellow human to tell us a story that is true and that we can then use to form conclusions. It's a traditional/evolved way of collecting "data." It's not very scientific, but it's the best thing we had for most of our species time on this planet (until writing allowed for real record-keeping). So in this sense, I can sympathize with people who find it much easier to believe in a someone's story (albeit totally subjective, biased, etc.), then in some list of information typed up by someone you don't know, and printed out in some journal by people you don't know, etc.

Jan. 14 2011 03:41 PM
Levi Wallach from Reston, VA

The other item I just thought I'd mention is this. I think part of the resistance of some of these people to vax or to do it exactly according to what the CDC and others suggest, is that there is such an adament stance that doing anything else is wrong and bad. Is there such harm in seperating out an MMR and giving one every few weeks? Is that really going to significantly impact disease rates? Ok, maybe it will increase by half a percent and those for those parents whose children picked up the disease due to that increase it's VERY signifant. But if I felt a little uneasy about vaxing and my doc said "it's this way or no way" well, I don't know what I would have done 5 years ago, I might well have decided "screw this, I'm not doing it at all." So come on, better to get children mostly vaxed albeit on a slightly delayed schedule, then not vaxed at all, right? Obviously the other route of compelling people to vax hasn't worked very well!

Finally, regarding the author's condemnation of Dr. Sears, I was a bit curious about this since having read part of his book, he makes it clear that he is pro-vaccine. All the suggests is that in a few cases delaying/seperating out certain vaccines is reasonable, especially if your child is known to have immunity issues or has had previous bad reactions to vaccines. Since the Sears family is known for practicing a type of parenting that is not quite mainstream (attachment parenting), that a lot of these more "naturally-oriented" parents follow, I can only see this book as a positive since it is mostly sanctioning vaccines. No, it doesn't tell parents they are bad or crazy for not vaxing exactly according to schedule the way the CDC, some docs, and apparently some people here want, but it probably has done more good in (gently) persuading a lot of parents who otherwise might not have vaxxed AT ALL, to at least vax mostly, albeit delayed...

Jan. 14 2011 10:48 AM
Levi Wallach from Reston, VA

I thought I'd chime in here a bit as someone who has a natural bent towards science, but also some healthy (I think ;-) scepticism regarding how science can potentially be circumvented by political and market forces.

I belong to a listserve that is based on "natural" ways to heal people of various ailments, and a lot of people in my community belong to either this list or at least the general mentality. Many of these people don't vaccinate at all, but many do a delayed schedule. Personally we've gotten most of the recommended vaccines, but not exactly when they were recommended.

A couple of things to note here. The people who have the leanings towards using more "natural" and "traditional" ways to heal also have a general distaste for an authority telling them they must do things in X way. They are libertarians in this way, and some are anti-government. That doesn't mean they are socially or fiscally conservative. I'm not, and I know of many who aren't while others are. These people are predisposed towards thinking that the government and also large companies (pharmaceutical companies big agro-businesses, etc. have conspired to remove their choices - choices to vaccinate, choices to drink raw milk, choices to have their kids educated in a way they see fit, etc. You name it! I'm not casting judgement on this mentality one way or another, but while this mentality might be alien to you, just remember this judgement from "mainstream society" is exactly why these people sometimes develop a kind of bunker mentality and won't believe even the latest findings since it must be a conspiracy. :)

I think Dr. Offit speaks reasonably enough, but I think many of the previous posters, as well as many doctor's, take a very reactive stance. They want to villify these parents as being stupid, paranoid, irresponsible, even abusive. If you choose to do something differntly and then someone accuses you of child abuse, or tries to implicate you in harming other children, this rhetoric will do nothing but make you even more defensive. We need to cooly and rationally discuss this stuff and try to break down what exactly the concerns are, etc. Those who want to beat up on the parents who don't vax complain that they are illogical, but I see those critics getting extremely emotional. I understand it's frustrating trying to explain something that's obvious to you and not getting the expected response on the first try, but this is why we need to keep talking and stop yelling, because that shuts down all thinking and listening immediately!

Jan. 14 2011 10:48 AM

I agree with Ken.

I spent the first year of my baby's life *terrified* of the other kids in the neighborhood. Every time the topic of vaccines came up on the local parents' list-serve, dozens would chime in with 'we are on a delayed schedule...' or 'OUR pediatrician is supportive of not-vaccinating'. I would ask myself: Who ARE these people?!?

Meanwhile in California, a dozen babies have died of Whooping Cough.

And there have been outbreaks of Measles and Mumps!

So, though my baby's first birthday, I studiously avoided all other small children in the neighborhood.

I just wish that those kids/parents had some sort of sign or label on them, so I would know who, specifically, to avoid.

How is it fair that these non/delayed vaccinators put the whole community at risk?

I wish that up-to-date vaccination was required to use ANY public places... including playgrounds and parks.

For older kids: I don't think that kids who have not been vaccinated should be allowed to go to school with kids who have been vaccinated. They can have their 'excuse' for not vaccinating, fine, but let them be put into their own un-vaccinated school.

Why, Mr. Lehrer, did you have a show about autism and not even mention recent literature? (Like the link between close birth spacing.)

I for one am relieved that my pediatrician IS NOT SUPPORTIVE of parents wishing to delay vaccination. I was relieved the day she got her MMR and Varicella! And, no, she had no reaction, no fever, no rash, no problems at all.

Jan. 13 2011 03:01 PM

Stephanie from Westchester: it was Leonard Lopate who made that comment to Mr. Offit in another segment, not Brian.

Jan. 13 2011 01:34 PM
Stephanie from Westchester

Wow! Brian, there is no way that you should have had this topic on your show since you are obviously too emotionally attached. That you could even suggest to this physician that he must not understand the parents of autistic children or spend time with them was outrageous! I am sorry to hear that your child is autistic but that doesn't excuse ignoring the science nor insulting a key vaccine researcher. I hope some day there is an easy answer to why some children become autistic but for now it is time to put away the idea that vaccines are the cause.

Jan. 13 2011 12:44 PM
Tony from Carnasie

tewie -- if by "mercury" you mean thimerosal, since 2001, with the exception of some influenza vaccines, thimerosal has not been used as a preservative in routinely recommended childhood vaccines.

Jan. 13 2011 12:04 PM
Brian from Hoboken

This is like debating whether the sun revolves around the earth. Brian keeps it alive by using languae like "potential link to vaccines". All this based on the garbage made up data of one researcher who looked at 13 kids!!!! If these parents don't vaccinatetheir kids, fine. But I don't want them in school with my kid, in the park with my kid, etc. Vaccination is a social contract that is only as good as it's weakest link. Stop the madness.

Jan. 13 2011 11:49 AM
Laura from Brooklyn

I adopted my daughter when she was 9 months old and had a fair amount of concern about most things related to her of which was vaccines. She had compromised health, had just had measles, when I got her from another country and did not want to load her with any amount of vermin or virus.
I worked hard to find a pediatrician who was committed to non-mercury injections and also allowed me to proceed at my own pace. No clusters!!!!! We did one shot at a time and were completely OFF the recommended schedule. I waited as long as possible to do the varicella, hoping she would actually contract the disease. That may seem cruel to some but it worked for me. Setting our own schedule offer a peace of mind that is priceless.

Jan. 13 2011 11:47 AM
Ken from Little Neck

As the parents of a 3 week old, my wife and I plan to fully vaccinate our child on the recommended schedule. We are frightened by the fact that so many parents with zero medical knowledge would be willing to put not only their own children at risk, but every other child that they might come in contact with.

Jan. 13 2011 11:46 AM

Can you guest please discuss HPV vaccine? Any long term side effects? And just how effective is it?

Jan. 13 2011 11:44 AM
Ted from Astoria

Rise in autism possibly due to:
1. Better diagnostics
2. Age of conception
3. Occupational/environmental criteria
4. Genetic causations
A colleague runs Infection Control at a leading medical center. His son is severely autistic. He does not believe the autism-vaccine hypothesis.
These groups cannibalize funding and attention that could be devoted toward ALL developmental diseases.

Jan. 13 2011 11:44 AM

can someone please address the mercury content in children's vaccinations?

Jan. 13 2011 11:43 AM
Larry from Brooklyn

As a neuroscientist, I am wondering why the discussion does not come around to the evidence that 20% of autism cases are associated with pre-natal maternal infection. Furthermore, average head size of autistic children are smaller at birth and then abnormally large later in childhood. Seems to point to pre-natal conditions.

Jan. 13 2011 11:42 AM
Chris from Amityville

Scientists fear MMR link to autism
DateJanuary 11, 2011

By SALLY BECK, Mail on Sunday New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link.

Jan. 13 2011 11:41 AM
Jollyd from NYC

It HAS been shown by a recent study in the U.S. are found to have Measles virus in the gut and that it is the form found in the MMR not the wild variety.

Don't confuse the issue.

Jan. 13 2011 11:40 AM
jeb from Greenpoint

When it comes to this issue and birthers, etc. is there a pattern in how beliefs take hold? These people are not demonstrably mentally ill or uneducated -- how do they fix on an easily disprovable concept?

Jan. 13 2011 11:40 AM
Ben from Park Slope

It's just astounding to me that people who are somehow "convinced" that vaccines are related to autism, so much that they will not stop at any fact or logic to question their claim.

When Wakefield came forward, they all insisted they should not give their kids the MMR vaccine.

Once Wakefield's reserch became questionable (and has now been shown to have been totally made up), they turned their attention to Thimerosol, the mercury preservative to justify a fear of vaccines.

Fair enough, it seems wrong to put mercury into kids for any reason. But then Thimerosol was taken out of pediatric vaccines in 2002, and autism kept rising. So it just plain isn't Thimerosol's fault, however bad that chemical might be.

And now I've had otherwise intelligent parents say to me "I don't know, I just don't want to overload my kid's immune system with so many vaccines." Even though there is research that demonstrates vaccines aren't "overloading" the immune system at all.

Can't people accept that vaccines have saved hundreds of thousands of pediatric deaths? These diseases used to be quite common a century ago.

Jan. 13 2011 11:40 AM
Elysia from Connecticut

Has there ever been a correlation between higher autism rates among babies born to "older" women? Say from 35-45? Just curious if this has been studied.

Jan. 13 2011 11:38 AM
David from Astoria

A great resource for information on vaccines and their history:

Created by the non-profit College of Physicians of Philadelphia, a medical society.

Jan. 13 2011 11:38 AM
Elysia from Connecticut

Has there ever been a correlation between higher autism rates among babies born to "older" women? Say from 35-45? Just curious if this has been studied.

Jan. 13 2011 11:38 AM

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