The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear
by Seth Mnookin
Reviewed by Paul Collins
The news in 1998 was as startling as the jab of a needle: Dr. Andrew Wakefield, in new study in the influential medical journal The Lancet, had made a connection between MMR vaccination and the onset of autism.
"My concerns," he announced dramatically at a London press conference, "are that one more case of this is too many."
There was something to be concerned about, all right. Recently, the British Medical Journal found that Wakefield, who had undisclosed financial interests in discrediting the MMR vaccine, had forged patient records to get his results.
But for many, the news comes too late. In the years since Wakefield's incendiary report, vaccination rates tumbled -- Ashland is now one of the country's least-vaccinated cities -- even as studies disproved Wakefield's theory, and even after Wakefield himself was struck off the British medical register for ethical violations. And slowly but surely, long-vanquished diseases like whooping cough and measles returned to stalk the land again.
Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear is the tale of a modern tragedy -- though first you must inoculate yourself against Mnookin himself. He begins by noting fussy anti-vaccine rhetoric among the sort of people who "drove Priuses and shopped at Whole Foods." It's a silly characterization, even if true; the very people who need to read this book may toss it aside instantly.
And that's a shame, because The Panic Virus becomes a devastating indictment of a dangerous mass delusion -- and a disturbingly profitable fraud. Mnookin reveals the long history of a conflict that harks back to the 1720s, when Cotton Mather was firebombed for advocating vaccinations. Alarmist TV reports in the 1980s, bearing titles like "Vaccine Roulette," proved scarcely less crude. The result, combined with fraudulent research bearing the imprimatur of The Lancet, is a damning parade of lazy reporters, incompetent doctors and opportunistic politicians.
But then, every decade has its charlatans. Why, one might ask, do they now have better soapboxes and bullhorns?
Much blame lies squarely upon my own profession. I've worked in British journalism enough to be unsurprised by this creeping realization as I read Mnookin's story: that the vaccine panic is best understood as the monstrous offspring of the London press' baffling aversion to fact-checking.
But, as Mnookin notes, there's plenty of blame to go around America, too: A wave of cutbacks in the industry "has led to the jettisoning of science reporters." The result, placed in the hands of untrained reporters, has been a disaster for the public's understanding of public health issues. Panics make for good stories, but terrible policy -- while quietly successful efforts get no press at all. This, Mnookin warns, "encapsulates one of the most vexing paradoxes about vaccines: the more effective they are, they less necessary they seem."
All along, the press -- and even this valuable book itself -- has also missed a fundamental moral question. But it's one that, as the father of a 12-year-old autistic boy, I have long had to confront head on. Let us say, for the sake of argument, that Wakefield had been right. The implicit calculation made when a parent subsequently refuses vaccinations for their child is this: The risk of my child's death is better than the risk of a disability.
This is an appalling philosophy.
Look: Even if a vaccine could cause autism, in the absence of a better formulation I'd still give it to my son. His disability is not a fate worse than death. And more to the epidemiological point -- it is also not worse than your child's death.