The Panic Virus: Exploring the Medical Crisis of Misinformation

Almost 9 years later, Seth Mnookin’s book is still desperately needed

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Despite a myriad of evidence to the contrary, posts regularly cross my social media feeds about the relationship between vaccines and autism. Though the fervor has calmed to a degree, autism and vaccines remain somewhat of a hot button issue.

I’ve been interested in the strange dynamic of belief, science, and the wildfire spread of fear-based misinformation for a while. I’ve read a lot about the subject, including Jenny McCarthy’s book Louder than Words. Despite McCarthy’s ‘mother’s instinct’ and conviction that vaccines caused her son’s autism, and that she was able to cure him through diet and therapy, I finished the book believing neither. I ran across The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear by Seth Mnookin at the library, and it sounded right up my alley.

Mnookin’s book is a wonderfully well executed look into the world of vaccines and the medical crisis of misinformation. He specifically uses the example of the spread of ideas surrounding the supposed connection between autism and the MMR vaccine. As a young married man planning to have children, Mnookin heard many stories about vaccines from his friends, many of whom had concerns about the safety of vaccines for their children. He decided to explore the topic for himself and seek out the facts, and The Panic Virus was born.

The book begins with information about vaccines in general, all the way back to the first inoculations created against smallpox. Vaccines have always been controversial, from the first time someone decided to score their skin and rub infected pus on it to inoculate themselves to the first polio vaccines, when bad batches paralyzed children after they were administered. It’s not a surprise that a controversy arose regarding the MMR vaccine, mercury, the use of thimerosal, and whether it’s linked to autism or other neurological conditions.

The medical crisis that follows the controversy is one of epic proportions.

In this case, the medical crisis that follows the controversy is one of epic proportions. There are schools in California where 40–60% of the children are not being vaccinated, and vaccination rates are at their lowest in years. Dozens and dozens of children are at risk for exposure, hospitalization, and even death from diseases which are wholly preventable. This is absolutely a health crisis. The panic virus that Mnookin is referring to is misinformation itself, which spreads like wildfire with the help of the modern day media.

Andrew Wakefield is one of the most major players in this story. The doctor who first published a study claiming that autism and digestive problems were a direct result of receiving the MMR vaccine has since been stripped of his medical license. A formal retraction of the article was issued by the journal in which it was published, and it’s been revealed that Wakefield had a financial stake in proving the link. Before publishing his study, Wakefield filed a patent for an alternate measles vaccine, so if MMR stopped being used, he stood to make a good deal of money.

The behavior of those perpetuating this idea is reprehensible and irresponsible.

Wakefield was just the first in a long string of people spreading information with no basis in fact through the media. Having an autistic child is not easy. Some parents are dealing with children who are non-verbal, can never be toilet trained, are unable to show emotion, are violent or profoundly unable to take care of themselves. It is hard, thankless work, and I can see how these parents would want to reach out and grab hold when someone is giving them an explanation for why this happened to their child.

I believe this makes the behavior of those perpetuating this idea even more reprehensible and irresponsible. They are taking advantage of parents emotions and questions about a condition whose causes are still largely unknown, and they’re doing it to make a name (or worse, a buck) for themselves.

Mnookin discuses Wakefield in depth, as well as David Kirby, author of the book Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic. Kirby added a lot of fuel to the fire of parents who are blaming vaccines and the government’s vaccine program for their children’s autism. Despite the lack of evidence of any link, Wakefield, Kirby, and Jenny McCarthy all have huge followings in the autism community, and continue to attend events, give talks, and provide information to parents all over the world.

This is especially surprising the case of Wakefield, who has been exposed as an unethical doctor who fixed his research, was nonobjective, and stood to gain financially from his own findings. His research showed contaminated samples, and how much of a surprise can that be from someone who took his control samples by drawing blood from the guests at his own child’s birthday party? Yet he now lives in the United States, and continues to book speaking engagements and spread his ideas.

Though at least half of the book is devoted to looking at vaccines as they relate to autism, Mnookin also explores vaccines in general. He gives great background information about studies regarding mercury poisoning and mercury content in vaccines, as well as some history of other public health scares. There is exploration of the history of people mistrusting the government as well, for example, the debate over fluoridation of the water supply.

This book explores why we are able to believe in ideas that have no basis in fact and how we decide how much proof is enough.

The Panic Virus explores the reasons why people are able to believe in ideas that have no basis in fact, especially on emotionally charged issues, and how we decide how much proof is enough. One of the major points made is that you cannot prove a negative, that those like David Kirby who ask for the government to prove all vaccines are 100% safe for every single person are asking for the impossible.

Study after study has failed to find any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The British and American court systems have both conducted in-depth, several year long investigations and found no causal relationship. The doctor who most heavily promoted the idea has been stripped of his license. Yet, people continue to insist that there must be a link that they “just know” that their child became autistic only after vaccination.

Some parts of the book are particularly heartbreaking to read, but I think that’s imperative. The debate over vaccination is not an abstract thing, and stories of sick children show the very real, sometimes deadly consequences of the anti-vaxxer movement.

As a parent, the idea of a child dying from something so preventable is devastating.

My heart ached reading about children who have been hospitalized in pediatric and infant ICUs because they caught preventable diseases from kids who were not vaccinated. Particularly distressing is the story of a six week old baby who couldn’t fight off the pertussis (whooping cough) that she came down with before she was old enough to be vaccinated. As a parent, the idea of a child dying from something so preventable is devastating.

Is Mnookin using these stories to appeal to our emotions? Absolutely, but with good reason. It’s time for everyone to hear this side of the story, to give equal airtime to these parents as has been given to accounts like Jenny McCarthy’s in abundance — my child got the vaccine and they changed. As one parent of a child who died of whooping cough points out, she contacted the Oprah show and other news outlets and none of them responded with any interest in her side of the debate. These parents deserve to be heard as well, and to be recognized for the hardship they’ve gone through.

The tragedy here is that children are being hurt. Millions of dollars have been spent fighting a battle with vaccines that has no basis, when that money could have been spent on the actual children. It could have funded autism research, special schooling, and tools for the children who are affected by autism. Families whose budgets are stretched to the limits by trying to provide the best for their children are spending their money on ‘miracle cures’ and remedies based on the idea of autism as a bio-medical condition with a root cause in some vaccine or virus. Meanwhile, Hib, whooping cough, and measles outbreaks are threatening other children with serious illness and even death.

I went into this book already confident that vaccines do not cause autism. I came out of it appalled that the media is still perpetuating this myth, and that people are still believing it. If you’ve got doubts about your child’s vaccines, this is a wonderful book to read that will give you straightforward, scientific facts about the lack of evidence that there is any link whatsoever between autism and vaccines.

Fake news isn’t just annoying, it has the potential to be extremely dangerous.

Beyond that, it will make you think about how you make decisions about what you believe and when to give up and admit that an idea just isn’t so. Fake news isn’t just annoying, it has the potential to be extremely dangerous in very real ways.

It’s been 9 year since The Panic Virus was published, but it’s still extremely relevant. Mnookin talks about autism and vaccines a lot, but he uses them as a tool to expose a larger issue that is still going strong today: medical misinformation. Whether we’re talking about people declining to take statins that could save their lives, or hyped up herbal remedies, getting your medical advice from the internet is a dangerous game, and one far too many people are playing.

In the epilogue, Mnookin returns to his baby boy and the future he sees for him:

“As my son grows older, I hope that … he will feel empowered to make his own decisions and will have the self-confidence to challenge traditional wisdom. I also hope that he learned the difference between critical thinking and getting swept up in a wave of self-righteous hysteria, and I hope he considers the effects of his actions on those around him. Finally, for his sake and for that of everyone else alive, I hope he grows up in a world where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake.”

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