MommaSaid: In your new book, “The Panic Virus,” you blame a “self-indulgent and irresponsible” press corps for helping spread the false claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Who should parents believe?
The short answer is their pediatrician: If parents don’t feel that they can trust their child’s doctor to be honest with them and provide them with reliable information, they should find another doctor.
That said, I know there are situations that arise when you can’t get in touch with your doctor. Not long ago, my son had croup, and my wife and I obviously couldn’t get him an appointment at three in the morning. At times like that, it’s tempting to just starting putting search items into Google in an effort to figure out what to do. That’s a mistake. (Search for “brain tumor headache” and see what comes up.)
Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all come a long way in making sure they have easily navigable websites with clear and concise information available for parents.
MommaSaid: How did so many intelligent, educated parents come to the conclusion that vaccinations are harmful to their children’s immune systems when the original study linking certain vaccinations to autism by Dr. Andrew Wakefield has been proven “fraudulent”?
I think this is an example of how hard it can be to unscare people. (It’s also worth pointing out that the theory most commonly associated with Wakefield – that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine could be linked to autism – is not the only vaccines-cause-autism scare that has received attention over the past decade.) It’s the reason I titled my book The Panic Virus– fear has a way of spreading virally through a population.
There are a number of other factors that come into play here, including the way these particular myths have been covered in the press and the fact that the effectiveness of vaccines has made the threat posed by the diseases they combat seem notional.
MommaSaid: Generation Rescue’s Jenny McCarthy, actress and autism activist, claims to have graduated from “The University of Google,” where, she says, she derived much of her information about autism. What do you say to parents who have followed her from-the-gut method of treating autism?
This is one of the things that initially got me interested in this topic: A lot of people I knew were making parenting decisions on “instinct.” I understand this instinct; I experience it with my son – but instinct is not a good way to make decisions about our health. There are many medical interventions (and scientific realities) that contradict “common sense” (think chemotherapy, or airplanes, or the Internet).
MommaSaid: Why does it seem that kids begin exhibiting signs of autism so soon after receiving the MMR vaccine? What is the difference between correlation and causation, and lack of evidence vs. evidence of harm?
There are several answers to this question. First, children receive the majority of childhood vaccines between birth and age three, which is also the period during which many developmental disorders are initially diagnosed. This gets to the issue of correlation and causation: The fact that two distinct events are correlated in time does not mean one causes the other. (For instance: That my going out of town correlated with two feet of snow falling in New York City does not mean that my going out of town caused it to snow, or vice versa.)
Another factor here is the innate human tendency to re-order past events in our minds in such a way to create coherent narratives. There are a series of evolutionary reasons we do this (I devote most of a chapter to the phenomenon of cognitive biases). The difficulty we have at dealing with randomness is an unavoidable human reality. In the case of parents’ memories that abrupt changes in their children’s behavior immediately followed vaccination, there have been many cases where these beliefs were contradicted by contemporaneous medical records or videotapes. This obviously does not mean parents are lying – it means that what they believe to be true and what is true might not correspond.
Your question about a lack of evidence really gets to a very crucial concept. To show vaccines are not safe, you need to show actual evidence that they cause harm. Vaccine skeptics have used the phrase “lack of evidence” to make it sound as if that evidence is just around the corner. We’ve spent more than a decade looking into these claims. Data from millions of children has been used in studies – and there’s no evidence that vaccines cause autism.
MommaSaid: What are the dangers of avoiding vaccination, both for individuals and for communities?
It’s important for people who don’t vaccinate their children to be honest with themselves about the potential consequences: Vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough (pertussis) and Hib are potentially fatal. In 2010, ten children in California died of whooping cough. Nine of them were under six months old. There have been fatal outbreaks of Hib in recent years. A measles outbreak that began when an intentionally unvaccinated patient of Dr. Bob Sears (author of the popular The Vaccine Book) returned home from a family vacation with a measles infection cost $10 million to contain and caused the hospitalization of an infant.
That last case illustrates how choosing not to vaccinate also puts those around you at risk. It is not accurate for people to say that if they choose not to vaccinate, that shouldn’t affect those around them that do vaccinate. For one thing, there are some children in whom a given vaccine is not effective. (I write about one such instance, where a young girl who’d been vaccinated for Hib was infected and suffered severe consequences.) There are also people who, for one reason or another, are unable to get vaccinated. Finally, since infants are not fully vaccinated at birth, they’re vulnerable to infections. Some of the most difficult conversations I’ve had were with parents like Danielle Romaguera, whose daughter Brie died of whooping cough before she was old enough to receive the first dose of the pertussis vaccine.
MommaSaid: Now that you’re a parent, do you fear vaccines? If so, why, given all your research to the contrary?
I don’t know if there’s any way not to get a little queasy when you bring your child in for a shot. (I still remember how much I hated it when I got some of my childhood vaccines.) Needles are unpleasant and it feels wrong to take this perfect little healthy creature and inject something into his chubby little thigh.
You can’t tell a six-month-old that this is for his own good, so there’s inevitably that moment when they look up at you as if they’re saying, “I thought we had a deal – you clean up my poop and feed me and make sure I don’t get hurt. What the hell is this all about?” But I didn’t hesitate at all in having my son vaccinated. I’m afraid of him being around children who aren’t vaccinated.
Seth Mnookin is the author of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. He’s also written two previous books: The 2006 bestseller Feeding the Monster and 2004’s Hard News, which was selected as a Washington Post Best Book of the Year. Since 2005, he’s been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and he’s also written for New York, Newsweek, Wired, Slate, Salon.com, and many other publications.