Seth Mnookin’s ‘The Panic Virus’
Listen to our interview with journalist Seth Mnookin. He was the guest in this Science Forum discussion. Mnookin’s new book is The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear. It tells the story of a powerful anti-vaccine campaign that was spurred by a fraudulent study published in 1998 in the medical journal, The Lancet.
The study was carried out by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield. He claimed to have found a link between the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine and regressive autism. The findings were based on Wakefield’s study of 12 children. From the beginning, The Lancet distanced itself from the research by publishing a harsh critique alongside the study.
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Scientists have tried but failed to replicate Wakefield’s findings. Last year The Lancet retracted the paper and most recently the British Medical Journal, which carried out its own investigation into Wakefield’s work, called it outright “fraud.” Amid the controversy, Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the UK.
But the anti-vaccine campaign spurred by Wakefield’s work has hardly lost ground. Thousands of parents in the U.S., the U.K., and other European countries continue to not immunize their children. The movement has had support from parents of autistic children and celebrities like Jenny McCarthy.
Faced with the daunting task of caring for a child with a poorly understood disease, vaccines have become an easy target for the fear and wrath of parents, according to Mnookin. Scientists do know that autism is a complex developmental disorder with a strong genetic basis. But they are only just starting to identify some of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of parents having an autistic child.
As for cures, there are none known and Mnookin acknowledges how incredibly frightening that is for parents. But the success of the anti-vaccination movement is starting to take a toll on public health. Diseases that were considered to be under control, like pertussis (whooping cough) and measles have made an unprecedented comeback in both the U.S. and parts of Europe.
- Are you struggling with the decision over whether or not to vaccinate your children?
- How do you get the best scientific information to help you decide what to do?
- Is it too late to stop diseases like pertussis, measles and mumps from taking their toll?
Join our conversation with Mnookin. It’s just to the right. He’s taking your questions until January 31st.
- For a longer version of our interview with Mnookin, download the latest episode of The World Science podcast.
- Seth Mnookin’s Blog.
- A review of The Panic Virus in the Columbia Journalism Review.
- Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative.
- Three-part series in British Medical Journal on the fraud behind the original study in The Lancet: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
- CDC pages on recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough.