Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vaccine Wars: The Phantom Menace

It's been 9 months since I read Autism's False Prophets and participated in a discussion over at Science Blogs Book Club. The good news is that there is increased awareness of the overwhelming scientific evidence refutating a link between vaccines and autism. Many organizations including the CDC, the Courts and the National Academy of Science, have all rejected a link between vaccines and autism.

There's even a Jenny McCarthy Body Count. (Former playmate Jenny McCarthy is the most prominent of the anti-vaccine advocates).

So why is the anti-vaccine movement still strong? Oprah has notably given Jenny McCarthy a highly visible platform. Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines don't cause autism, one in four Americans still think they do. This has led to upsurges in measles, mumps and whooping cough among other easily preventable diseases. Large numbers of unvaccinated kids are dropping the population immunity below the herd immunity threshold for many diseases.

A great article investigating this tragedy is now available at PLoS Biology.

As the article points out, there is a conflict between individual interests and community interests. Pediatrician Jeffrey Baker says that "parents who claim nonmedical exemptions seem to become so focused on their own children that they “lose the bigger picture,” not accepting responsibility for the impacts their actions may have on the health of the community."

Autism's False Prophet's author Paul Offit blames "the media for keeping the myth alive by following the journalistic mantra of ‘balance,’ perpetually presenting two sides of an issue even when only one side is supported by the science. And shows like “Larry King Live” have been “just awful on this issue,” he adds, placing ratings and controversy above public health by repeatedly giving McCarthy and other “true believers” a platform to peddle fear and misinformation."

Medical anthropologist Sharon Kauffman thinks that the easy access to information online has exacerbated the crisis. Kaufman says, “many parents see even the most respected vaccine experts' perspective on the issue as just one more opinion.”

Article author Liza Gross writes, "Scientists on TV and radio are hard-pressed to compete with the emotional appeals of activists....McCarthy emerged as a hero for some parents by telling her story. Personal stories resonate most with those who see trust in experts as a risk in itself—a possibility whenever people must grapple with science-based decisions that affect them, whether they're asked to make sacrifices to help curb global warming or vaccinate their kids for public health. Researchers might consider taking a page out of the hero's handbook by embracing the power of stories—that is, adding a bit of drama—to show that even though scientists can't say just what causes autism or how to prevent it, the evidence tells us not to blame vaccines. As news of epidemics spreads along with newly unfettered infectious diseases, those clinging to doubt about vaccines may come to realize that several potentially deadly diseases are just a plane ride, or playground, away—and that vaccines really do save lives.

"Embracing the power of stories" sounds like framing to me. The notion was abhorrent to me when I first read the Nisbit and Mooney article, but lately I've been feeling less certain regarding the role of scientists in their intersection with the media.

Gross, L. (2009). A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars PLoS Biology, 7 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000114


  1. Good stuff, thanks for summarizing it nicely.

  2. Great post! A few months ago while in the waiting room for my son's first immunization shots a mother proceeded to tell us that after conducting her own research that she decided to skip the first set of immunizations. At the time, I decided to just to say "Oh, I see" and move on to another topic. However, I now wish that I would have said something to contradict her "expert" opinions.