Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: The story of how so many parents fell for the autism-vaccine link.

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Feb. 15 2011 2:53 PM

How Sane Parents Got Paranoid About Vaccines

A review of Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear.

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Here is what baffles Mnookin most: How so many caring, well-educated, affluent parents came to buy leaky theories that vaccines cause autism. How 48 states allow parents to exempt their kids from vaccines for religious reasons, and how in 18 states all you need is a philosophical reason. How, in 2010, the journal Pediatrics reported that a staggering 25 percent of parents believed that vaccines can cause developmental disorders in healthy children. How, even after a 2002 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found no link between MMR and autism, the anti-vaccine camp grew stronger.

Perhaps it's not surprising that people are oftenmore willing to believecelebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Oprah (who gave McCarthy a platform and made"mommy instinct" ahousehold phrase) than a bunch of earnest research doctors who haven't mastered the sound bite. People also trusted Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the attorney and environmentalist, whose 2005 article "Deadly Immunity" (published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon, though Salon later removed it) suggested that scientists, government agencies, and companies were conspiring to mask the dangers of thimerosal (a form of mercury sometimes used as a vaccine preservative). Mnookin is so ticked off at Kennedy that he somewhat tediously demonstrates Kennedy's selective "slicing and dicing" of statements by scientists to fit his narrative.

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Vaccine paranoia may also be a consequence of print journalism's decline. Health and science reporters are supposed to not only translate scientific jargon into clear language but also comment on whether a particular study's methods are kosher. But in the last 20 years, as Mnookin notes, the number of science reporters and science sections has dropped sharply. Many journalists now treat press releases as gospel, without doing any independent reporting. And then there'sjournalist David Kirby, whose 2004 book, Evidence of HarmMercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, exploredthe purported autism-MMR-thimerosal link. Bitterly sarcastic, Mnookin describes Kirby's narrative as "proud, independent-minded mothers doing battle with greedy drug companies and corrupt government agencies." Although much about the book was misleading, including its title (which as Mnookin notes was taken from a 1999 CDC statement finding no evidence of harm involving thimerosal in vaccines), the media ate it up: When Tim Russert squared Kirby off against Harvey Fineberg, the president of the venerable Institute of Medicine, Kirby's polished comments sparkled in comparison to Fineberg's bumbling attempts to respond to his absurd pronouncements without sounding condescending.

The Panic Virus is hard to put down. The chapters are short and intense; the anecdotes colorful; the explanations of scientific and medical concepts almost always crystal clear. But while Mnookin has a knack for telling a story, I don't think this book (or the BMJ series, for that matter, or infectious disease expert Paul A. Offit's new book Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us) will be picked up by many die-hard anti-vaccine readers. Mnookin is surely preaching to the choir. And yet there may be some utility to this: He provides his readers plenty of prods with which to jab those who don't vaccinate their kids, and some of these prods are awfully sharp.

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Anna Reisman is a physician in Connecticut. You can follow her on Twitter: @annareisman.