Monday, January 10, 2011

Seth Mnookin: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

The MMR vaccine controversy refers to claims that autism spectrum disorders are a direct result to having the MMR vaccine administered. MMR is an immunization against measles, mumps and rubella. Claims of a connection between the vaccine and autism surfaced in a 1998 paper, The Lancet, a respected British medical journal. Investigation by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer discovered that the lead author of the article, Andrew Wakefield, had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence, and had broken other ethical guidelines and codes. The Lancet retracted the, and Wakefield was found guilty by the General Medical Council of serious professional misconduct in May 2010, and was struck off the Medical Register—meaning he could no longer practice as a doctor in the United Kingdom. In 2011, media circulated the news that the BMJ had declared the research about the MMR link to autism “fraudulent.”

"This type of cognitive relativism — or "truthiness," as fictional talk show host Stephen Colbert termed it — has become the defining intellectual trend of our time."

- Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

"It gives credence to the belief that we can intuit our way through all of the various decisions we need to make in our lives and it validates the notion that our feelings are a more reliable barometer of reality than the facts."

- Seth Mnookin; April 2010, Larry King Live

"Looking at the diseases mumps, measles and rubella in a country like the US... it doesn't tend to be a problem. Children will do fine with these diseases in a developed country that has good nutrition. And because I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines."

- Mother of a grade-schooler that was infected while on vacation in Europe

“By 2005 … a preoccupation with vaccine safety and an opposition to traditional institutions were viewed by an ever-growing number of ‘autism advocates’ as prerequisites for membership in their community.”

- Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

In January 2011, David M. Shribman wrote “Anatomy of a panic” for the Boston Globe. In the past decade Seth Mnookin has become a chronicler of some of the icons of American popular culture. He wrote a popular book, Feeding the Monster,on the ascent of the Red Sox, and a controversial book, Hard News, on the scandals of The New York Times. Now he is taking on another modern phenomenon, the movement against vaccinations. "The Panic Virus"is sure to attract attention — and the virulent criticism of one of contemporary life’s most ardent insurgencies, those who believe inoculations possess the power to injure. Specifically the Seth Mnookin book focuses on the scare triggered by a flawed 1998 scientific paper suggesting that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could cause autism. […] In his book, Seth Mnookin traces the spread of the panic and the role of the media in it. A new parent himself, Mnookin admits a certain fear of vaccines — but an even greater fear that his child might encounter someone with measles or whooping cough before he gets all his shots. He understands the panic and passion of parents with sick children — but fears that waves of “self-righteous hysteria’’ have the power of overcoming “critical thinking.’’ […] The Seth Mnookin book is an unsparing brief against the vaccine skeptics. But in a larger sense, this volume is less about the insurrection against inoculations than it is about the democratization of information. It is less about the movement to battle the medical establishment than it is about the ability of social networks to mobilize for what Seth Mnookin and most mainstream scientists and doctors believe is a bad cause.

"That MMR paper is the best example there has ever been of a very, very dodgy paper that has created a lot of discomfort and misery."

- Dr Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, speaking about Dr. Andrew Wakefield's MMR-autism research

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"Anxiety about the individual's fate in industrialized societies [plays a role in motivating anti-vaccination crusaders]. Then, as now, they appealed to knee-jerk populism by conjuring up an imaginary elite with an insatiable hunger for control. [...] Then, as now, they preached the superiority of subjective beliefs over objective proofs, of knowledge acquired by personal experience rather than through scientific rigor."

- Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

January 2011: Dr. Michael Shermer, publisher of the Skeptic Magazine and author of the forthcoming book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, wrote “An Epidemic of Ignorance” for the Wall Street Journal. Seth Mnookin's "The Panic Virus" is a lesson on how fear hijacks reason and emotion trumps logic. But the story starts with a bit of bad science. On Feb. 26, 1998, the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet published a paper by a medical researcher named Andrew Wakefield who claimed that he had found a causal link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. Even though the journal's editors made it clear that further research was needed, at a press conference Dr. Wakefield announced: "With the debate over MMR that has started, I cannot support the continued use of the three vaccines given together." […] In a brilliant piece of reportage and science writing, Seth Mnookin explains precisely how medical researchers set about determining whether there is a causal connection in an apparent pattern. "Broadly speaking, there are three ways scientists collect data to test new theories," he explains. "The best possible method is through a randomized clinical trial, in which researchers take a sampling of a population and arbitrarily test their hypothesis on one half while leaving the other half untouched."

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From the website of the James Randi Educational Foundation, dated April 1, 2009: Jenny McCarthy is well known as a model and actor, but in recent days she's getting far more publicity for her stance that vaccines cause autism. She has a son who may be autistic, and of course we are sympathetic to her plight. But that can only go so far when Ms. McCarthy appears on endless chat shows, is interviewed in magazine articles, and even writes books encouraging people not to vaccinate their children. Numerous, well-done studies have shown conclusively that there is no causal link between vaccines and the onset of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) - the claim that they are connected is spurious, based on anecdotes and the fact that vaccines are given to children around the same time that ASD symptoms begin to appear. The antivaccination movement has been directly linked with outbreaks of various vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, and there have been numerous illnesses and even deaths associated with these outbreaks. The facts are in, and have been for quite some time: vaccines are an overwhelming modern medical success story, having eradicated such scourges as smallpox, and hugely lowering rates of other diseases such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio, influenza, and diptheria. The evidence is also overwhelmingly against any link between vaccines and autism as well. Yet all that evidence has been overturned in the public's mind with ease and alacrity by Ms. McCarthy, so she wins the Pigasus award for her contribution to the country's ill-health.

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