< Seth Mnookin on The Panic Virus


Friday, January 07, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: This week, a lengthy British medical journal investigation came to an unequivocal conclusion.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: A prominent medical journal says Dr. Wakefield’s study was, in fact, an elaborate fraud.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: According to the report, some of the children Dr. Wakefield claimed had autism were, in fact, perfectly healthy, and some of the children he claimed got sick after being vaccinated were, in fact, sick before the vaccine.

MALE CORRESPONDENT: It was just falsified data to try and draw this association between this vaccine and autism. And now –

BOB GARFIELD: The primary evidence that childhood vaccinations are responsible for autism was a fraud. Case closed, right? Hardly because almost a year ago we talked to Dr. Richard Horton, the editor of the highly respected British medical journal The Lancet, where the panic-inducing study was first published. Horton was on the show to assess and apologize for how pernicious his journal’s decision to confer respect on the controversial study had been.

DR. RICHARD HORTON: This was a system failure. We failed, I think the media failed, I think government failed, I think the scientific community failed. And we all have to very critically examine what part we played in this.

BOB GARFIELD: The Lancet’s publication of the study stoked more than a decade of panic about the role vaccines, in particular the measles/mumps/rubella, or MMR, might play in the onset of childhood autism. It’s a panic no amount of fact-checking, Lancet apologies or scientific consensus has fully quelled. The inability or unwillingness to see the truth of vaccines and autism is the subject of Seth Mnookin’s new book, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear. Seth, welcome back to the show.

SETH MNOOKIN: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: I want to get this established first. Is there any scientific evidence connecting vaccines to autism, toxicity, or any statistically significant level of side effects?

SETH MNOOKIN: No, there is not, and there never has been. I think one of the things that has made this so difficult for the public to understand is that scientists are trained never to speak in absolutes. So the fact that there has not been any evidence ever indicating a link sounds to some people like there still might be evidence that will turn up tomorrow. But there have been millions of children that have been studied, and there has been fairly definitive conclusions that there is no link between developmental disorders or autism and any type of vaccine.

BOB GARFIELD: And just to establish the stakes, vaccination rates have spiked downward due to the hysteria. What are the public health consequences of that?

SETH MNOOKIN: In 2010, there were ten children in California who died of whooping cough. There was a measles outbreak in, in California a couple of years ago that cost 10 million dollars to contain. So the choice not to vaccinate has very real consequences for the public and society at large.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, now let's get down to the provenance of the autism myth. Where did it begin?

SETH MNOOKIN: Well, it’s interesting. It really began with this one study that was conducted in 1998 by a doctor - who actually has since had his medical license revoked - a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. And he proposed in a paper that was published in The Lancet that there was potentially a link between the measles vaccine and gut disorders, and there was also potentially a link between gut disorders and autism. In the paper itself, they were very careful not to say that they had any evidence of a link. But when Wakefield then went in front of the press, Wakefield was much more out front about saying that there was a likely connection and that parents should not vaccine. And immediately in the U.K. you saw MMR vaccine rates plummet.

BOB GARFIELD: The story did take hold.

SETH MNOOKIN: Well, what you saw immediately, starting the day after the press conference that Wakefield gave, was that the media presented this as an on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand scenario.

BOB GARFIELD: The New York Times used a sentence along the lines of “medicine is divided on this subject.”

SETH MNOOKIN: Exactly, and, and I think that the claim that medicine is divided on this is similar to the claim that scientists are divided on the issue of whether the Earth is round or flat. There are some people who believe the Earth is flat, but it’s not a question about which scientists are, are actually divided. So as the years went on and as studies specifically regarding the safety of the MMR vaccine continued to come in, for years you still had the coverage coming down in this sort of “who knows, we'll split the difference” type of sense.

BOB GARFIELD: So when we talk about media culpability here, there’s a number of issues. One is this sort of false balance problem. There was really no controversy at all but there was an organized group of vaccine skeptics who absolutely dominated the coverage, which was no accident. Can you tell me how this group coalesced to have such an impact on how the stories were covered, particularly on TV?

SETH MNOOKIN: Well, first, one thing which I think I should definitely point out is that in the very early days of this, there was not the amount of evidence indicating the safety of the MMR vaccine as there is today. Once this took off and you had a set of activists take hold of this, a lot of those activists were parents who had children who were very sick with autism or other developmental disorders, and that is a very compelling narrative for, for newspaper writers, for TV reporters. When journalists were faced with the question of how to frame a story, the human interest angle was clear. It was presenting it through the eyes of these parents who, who believe very strongly that their children had been damaged. Another thing I want to make clear is that I do not think that parents who believe this are trying to perpetrate any kind of fraud. I think that the blame, as it were, in this instance, lies with the various organs and people that perpetrated this. And that’s not just the media but it’s different -

BOB GARFIELD: Perpetrated and proliferated, right, because to the extent that crying parents are on Good Morning America talking about their heartbreak and its adjacency to an MMR vaccination, a lot of viewers are going to get the same ideas in their heads.

SETH MNOOKIN: Absolutely. It’s a topic Oprah featured a number of times, specifically with Jenny McCarthy, who believes that her son was given autism by a vaccine. And on the first show in which Oprah presented this, she had a long conversation with Jenny McCarthy in her studio, talking about how Jenny was a mother warrior taking care of her child. And then at one point she said, of course, we asked the CDC for comment, and she proceeded to read a rote statement that the CDC had given her. And as she was reading that, you just saw a series of words appear on the screen. So literally it was the face, the image of this mother taking care of her child, contrasted with a faceless bureaucracy.

BOB GARFIELD: Seth, your book is nominally about vaccine hysteria, but it seems to me it’s really about something a lot larger, and that’s the willingness of human beings to accept as truth what there is no evidence for. There seems to be some human impulse to [LAUGHS] explain complicated or painful or unknowable things in easy terms that snugly fit into some preconceived worldview. So, in the end, is this a vaccine problem we're talking about here, or is it a human problem?

SETH MNOOKIN: I think that you got to sort of a crucial point, and it, it even goes beyond people being willing to believe things for which there isn't evidence. It’s people willing to believe things and being very insistent about believing things for which there is evidence against it. One thing you see going on now is it’s much, much easier for people to construct their information intake in a way that ensures that they don't receive any views that contradict what they already think, through cable TV news, through online news sources. It creates something called an, an “availability cascade” where the more you hear something, the more you’re willing to believe it’s true. You see it in politics, especially. You see it in medicine a lot, in what different cures people are willing to try out or accept, even when they've been shown to be dangerous. So I think it’s a paradigm that extends really throughout society and throughout culture.

BOB GARFIELD: Seth, as always, thanks so much.

SETH MNOOKIN: Thank you. It’s, it’s great to be here.

BOB GARFIELD: Seth Mnookin is the author of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear. The book is out Tuesday.


JENNY McCARTHY: When I did get the diagnosis, though –


JENNY McCARTHY: - boom! [SNAPS FINGERS] The first thing I did, Google. I put in “autism” and I started my research.


OPRAH WINFREY: Thank God for Google.


JENNY McCARTHY: I’m telling you!


OPRAH WINFREY: Thank God for Google.


JENNY McCARTHY: The University of Google is where I got my degree from.



BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the tenth anniversary of On the Media.

BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, after ten years, On the Media! Ten years! Ten years!