Review of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, by Seth Mnookin, Simon & Schuster, 448 pp, $15
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion and unsupported research results, published a paper with a shocking allegation. He maintained the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine might cause autism.
Wakefield dramatically expanded a health scare that lives on today even though his study was proven fraudulent, the paper was withdrawn, and his medical license removed. In his amazing book The Panic Virus, journalist Seth Mnookin shows he spent enough time and effort researching the issue to have gained his medical degree. Along the way he exposes Oprah Winfrey, TV personality Jenny McCarthy, actor Jim Carrey, and many others for putting the nation at risk by dramatically reducing our children’s vaccination rate.
The consequences of their anti-science campaign are clearly in evidence. Today, measles and whooping cough are no longer illnesses of the past. In Great Britain there has been a thousand-fold increase in measles since 2000.
History of Vaccine Resistance
Mnookin asks and answers the question of why so many people remain adamant in the belief that vaccines are responsible for harming hundreds of otherwise healthy children. He shows how the belief starts with the frustration of mothers with very sick children for whom doctors have no simple explanation or cure. Their sense of being cut off from the world helps explain why thousands of mothers band together in a close-knit community of organizations offering solace.
Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public health advocates, scientists, and antivaccine activists. He describes study after study proving the now-obsolete themerasol preservative, and the mercury contained in it, have had no medical impact whatsoever. And he traces the resistance to vaccination all the way back to the historical development of the first vaccine for smallpox, a disease dating back to the 12th century.
The nature of vaccination, which places a small infection in the body to stimulate production of antibodies which prevent full infection later, went against the public mindset from its inception. The resistance began to subside when General George Washington’s army was stricken with so much of it that people reconsidered their beliefs.
Mnookin explains the science of immunology with sufficient clarity to relieve any reader from doubts about the efficacy of this lifesaving science. He continues with the story of polio and influenza, the latter killing more people than anything but the atomic bomb until it was conquered through effective vaccines.
Media’s Medical Misinformation
Mnookin walks us through other medical misinformation dramas, including the Fluoride Wars—which happens to be the title of a book I coauthored in 2009. He shows how widespread the “panic virus” can be among a public poorly educated in science and media members always grasping for negative stories with or without supporting factual detail.
Long before Wakefield’s discredited 1998 study, the anti-vaccine movement gained legitimacy in the eyes of the media via a 1982 TV show, Vaccine Roulette, in which reporter Lea Thompson gained fame and accolades for a one-sided story with considerable commentary by unqualified people. The show launched numerous notorious anti-vaccine personalities.
As the movement grew, the misinformation it spread had consequences. So many lawsuits were brought against vaccine manufacturers that they left the business one by one. The nation was in such short supply of vaccines that in 1986 Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act stipulating a tax on all vaccines that would be used to compensate injured parties in a transparent manner and fixed the upper limit of compensation at $250,000.
Distortion of Science
As Mnookin describes the distortions of science inflicted by the anti-vaccine movement he clearly explains the scientific method of inquiry which should have been used to separate real discoveries from medical quackery. He leans heavily on the complex work of the greatest scientists in history, but he notes, “The steps of the scientific method are the same whether you are a sixth grader prepping for a science fair or a physicist proposing a new framework for the universe: Observations lead to hypotheses, hypotheses are tested by experimentation, results are analyzed, and conclusions are submitted for publication and the whole process undergoes peer review.”
Unfortunately, the anti-vaccine movement followed none of these principles.
Mnookin is kind in his treatment of the many distraught parents of autistic children as he explains how expectation bias, selection bias, and other errors fueled this controversy. He outlines the problems of groupthink—in conventions, cable news, the Internet, etc.—where one can always find thousands of like-minded people. Mnookin writes, “the realities of human cognition help explain why it can be so difficult to demonstrate to someone that their initial read on a situation, their instinct, their gut reaction, their feeling is in fact wrong.”
This book reflects exemplary scientific investigation by a journalist who took the time to learn the science he was reporting on. The Panic Virus will strengthen your knowledge and your resolve to battle junk science.
When one reads of the travesty created by the anti-vaccine movement, some of whom cashed in handsomely, it serves as a reminder of Mark Twain’s words, quoting a 19th century preacher, that “a lie will go round the world while the truth is pulling its boots on.”