Over the past two decades there have been steady reports that the prevalence of autism is rapidly growing. In fact we have all heard about the “autism epidemic” that has created urgency to find a cause and a cure for the developmental disorder. What is less widely known is that as the prevalence rate of autism has grown- the prevalence of children diagnosed with “mental retardation” has decreased. This is because the children who in the past would have been labeled “mentally retarded” (now the politically correct term is “developmentally disabled”) are these days given the diagnosis of autism- a much more preferred diagnosis that keeps hope alive, holds less stigma and opens the doors to a host of behavioral, and biologically based therapies. In addition, diagnostic criterion has changed to include high functioning children on the “autism spectrum” who were previously just considered quirky.
Some parents want someone to blame for their child’s developmental disability and the autism-vaccine link hypothesis resulting from word of mouth, sensationalistic media blitz’s and unscrupulous scientists and doctors who sought financial gain and fame- provides justification for blame and lawsuits . Seth Mnookin’s book- The Panic Virus was inspired when he realized that his own friends were talking about the dangers of vaccination and distrust of the “medical establishment”. It was disturbing that their ideas appeared to be based more on emotion than valid research. The Panic Virus rectifies the misinformation campaign that threatens to bring back nearly eradicated infectious diseases.
The Historical Perspective of Vaccines
The Panic Virus begins with a historical overview of how public distrust of vaccines developed. For example, an early batch of the Salk polio vaccine that was contaminated during production caused death and the perception that vaccines were dangerous. However, a public that still remembered the ravages of a polio epidemic was willing to tolerate the small risks associated with the vaccine. Most Americans today, on the other hand, never knew anyone with measles, mumps or rubella and whooping cough is so rare- its likely a doctor would not even recognize the symptoms.
Mnookin also reminds readers that back in the early to mid 1900’s, doctors were highly respected and unquestioned. However, today’s computer savvy parent’s ability to self-educate and compare experiences on parent listserves and at conferences elevates the layperson’s opinion- even if that opinion is based on instinct, hearsay, TV reports or the ideas of famous actors. Some anti-vaccine proponents even accuse the Center for Contagious Diseases (CDC) and American Medical Association (AMA) of fraud and cover-up. Now why would our government want to harm America’s children?-Mnookin asks.
Fraud, Greed and Media Frenzy
Mnookin sites numerous examples of how the media sensationalized a hot button theory that from the get go lacked credible evidence. But they never reported the suffering of babies who caught whooping cough or measles before being old enough to receive their vaccinations and the unvaccinated children who brought infectious diseases back from abroad.
Then there is the story of Dr. Andrew Wakefield-a face and a hero in the anti-vaccine movement who has financially profited from the unnecessary, expensive, invasive tests he performed and the vaccine alternative he hopes to market. His following remains strong despite have lost his medical license, numerous reports that he has altered research results and that there continues to be no statistical link between autism and vaccines.
If I were to make any criticism of The Panic Virus-it might be that the stories can be a bit overwhelming at time, the facts disheartening and the message distressing. However, this is an important read that will hopefully add balance to the louder voices out there and help direct the research money so that it might actually help us to find a cure.
“The Autism Matrix”; Gil Eyal, Brendan Hart, Emine Oncular, Neta Oren & Natasha Ross; 2010.