Life Science Compliance Update

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February 07, 2011

Panic Virus: Deciding the Truth

Panic Virus 
Last year, the journal Lancet retracted a1998 study linking a routine childhood vaccine to autism and bowel disease after a U.K. investigation found flaws in the research. In fact, this month, a thorough study of the data by the British Medical Journal concluded that it was nothing less than an "elaborate fraud."

The study was conducted by Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, who also provided a research proposal to a lawyer seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers for causing autism.

When Wakefield published his controversial study in 1998, the media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come, Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Because of the impact that Wakefield had on public health and medicine, Seth Mnookin decided to interview parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin recognizes that even without the lack of corroborating evidence, the “myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders still lives on.” He notes how the myths have been popularized by “media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate.”

One of the reasons Mnookin wrote this book is to educate people that while such myths are being popularized, “millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures,” and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.”

For example, rates of unvaccinated children in New York and Connecticut doubled between 2005 and 2010. In New Jersey, they rose by 800%. In many other places around the country, they have fallen below the herd immunity rate of about 90%. As the Wall Street Journal noted, “if this medical mass hysteria is not checked soon we could face a terrible resurgence in these deadly diseases, which killed hundreds of millions of people before the invention of vaccines.”

He also carefully documents that “autism existed long before the MMR vaccine was introduced, and hundreds of millions of children have received the MMR vaccine without developing any negative side effects whatsoever (let alone autism).” In addition, The Panic Virus recognizes that “Dr. Wakefield's research exhibits several classic examples of researcher bias.”

For example, Wakefield already believed there was a link before he conducted his study, so he was subject to "experimenter bias." He relied on the memories of parents who brought their autistic children to him to determine whether autistic symptoms began before or after the vaccination (so they were subject to hindsight bias). Worst of all, according to Mr. Mnookin, Dr. Wakefield received more than £400,000 to provide support for publicly funded lawsuits against the drug companies that make the vaccines.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mnookin explained that when he decided to write the book, he felt an incredible responsibility to understand the science. Mnookin said he found it difficult to write on an intellectual level “to get a comprehensive grasp of things like virology and neurology.” He also said it was extremely difficult to write on an emotional level because he “met a lot of developmentally disabled kids and their families, and found out that they really don’t get enough support.”

Mnookin also addressed the fact that in response to Wakefield’s study, doctors need to do a better job addressing the issue with parents, which he feels would “have gone a long way to nip the situation in the bud.”

Another important point Mnookin made is that the issues of vaccines are important today because people in our generation never new anyone with iron lung, or some of the diseases these vaccines were designed to prevent.

In its review, the Wall Street Journal asserted that Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus “is a lesson on how fear hijacks reason and emotion trumps logic,” and “should be required reading at every medical school in the world.” Mnookin also gave an interview with the Boston Globe, where he further asserted that vaccine phobia is letting preventable infectious diseases needlessly threaten our children. 

Ultimately, Mnookin asserted that America has to take a greater responsibility to train reporters and editors in the topics they cover because the type of journalism that relies on the reporter's notion of what does or does not 'seem' correct or controversial is self-indulgent and irresponsible.

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