There's no evidence that vaccines cause autism. Yet a "self-indulgent and irresponsible" press corps following a "he said, she said" paradigm has spread that unsubstantiated claim to the point that once-rare, deadly diseases are coming back because parents swayed by these false reports are deciding not to vaccinate their children.
That's the core argument of Seth Mnookin's new book The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Mr. Mnookin is a smooth writer and a hardworking reporter, and The Panic Virus puts both his writing and reporting talents on fine display.
For a journalist, Mr. Mnookin is unusually direct in naming the names of other journalists he thinks did a poor job of covering the vaccine story. He's particularly hard on NBC's Lea Thompson and New York Times contributor David Kirby, but Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, Oprah Winfrey, Tim Russert, Don Imus, Larry King, Joe Scarborough, the BBC, and Greta Van Susteren all come in for criticism.
It's a tribute to Mr. Mnookin's own fair-mindedness that, as an advocate of vaccination, he is surprisingly forthright in recounting some of the cases in which vaccines turned out to be harmful. More than 60 American soldiers in World War II were killed by yellow fever vaccines that were contaminated with hepatitis B. In the "Cutter Incident" in 1955, dozens of children were paralyzed or killed by defective polio vaccine. In 1928, in Australia, 12 children died after they were injected with a batch of vaccine that had become contaminated with bacteria.
Readers with free-market leanings will be interested to see how preconceived notions about capitalism come into play in the vaccine debate. Mr. Mnookin faults the press in part for being eager to portray "a rapacious pharmaceutical industry." The book is also full of information about how doctor-scientists make money by serving as expert witnesses in lawsuits, a dynamic that seems not particularly healthy for either science or justice.
If the book has weak points, in my view, they are the few pages when Mr. Mnookin strays away from the vaccine-autism story into other questions, such as fluoridation of public drinking water supplies, evolution, and global warming. While the main story gets a thorough treatment, these other topics are treated glancingly. And while the main story demonstrates the author's refreshingly clear-eyed view of both the drug industry and the trial bar, the treatments of fluoridation, evolution, and global warming fall much more into the category of conventional wisdom of the American political liberal variety. If you are interested in the main story, though, these brief departures shouldn't deter you from reading the book.
Disclosures: I worked with Mr. Mnookin at three different newspapers (The Harvard Crimson, the Forward, and the New York Sun), and I like the guy. I was sent a review copy of the book by the publisher.