BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scientists have firmly established that childhood vaccines do not cause autism. Wait – hear that? That’s the sound of hundreds of keyboards clacking as angry parents rush to correct me. Many are probably citing Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who was the lead author on a 1998 study in The Lancet medical journal that implicated the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine with the rise of autism diagnoses. But Wakefield’s work was shown to be so unreliable that Lancet Editor Richard Horton publicly retracted the paper in early 2010.
RICHARD HORTON: This was a system failure. We failed. I think the media failed. I think government failed. I think the scientific community failed. And we all have to very critically examine what part we played in this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A few months later, Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. Finally, a 2011 investigation claimed that Wakefield’s original work had not only been flawed, but fraudulent. So with that important corrective out there, why is it that last year we learned measles infections have hit a 15-year high in the United States?
Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, says that this strange rise in preventable diseases has its roots in two groups of vaccine-averse parents. The first is a small core of diehard conspiracy theorists.
SETH MNOOKIN: The people who were most committed to the idea that there’s a link between vaccines and autism, for the most part, already believed that the medical community and international governments around the world were conspiring to hide evidence. And so, any further piece of evidence disproving that link becomes, kind of paradoxically, further proof of this conspiracy.
The second and larger group has almost, by osmosis, picked up on what has now been almost a decade and a half of these concerns about vaccines. And so, they may express those as a fear that children are getting too many vaccines or a desire to have their child develop, quote, “natural immunity” which some people very, very mistakenly see as being safer. Their concerns are typically much more inchoate and vague.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Has there been a systemic problem in the way it’s been covered?
SETH MNOOKIN: Absolutely. I actually think the moment of original sin in here is not the Wakefield paper but the coverage of the Wakefield paper because that was a study of 12 children. It’s what’s called a case series. And it’s absolutely insane for any journalist to take the results of a 12-person case series and draw these population-wide conclusions from this.
The paper, as soon as it came out in The Lancet, was called by many people the worst paper that The Lancet had ever published. So it wasn’t as if there was some period in which this seemed like it might have been really good work. And I think you see that a lot in science coverage and medicine. You have someone making an outrageous claim, and even if everyone in that field line up on the other side, it’s presented as scientists’ debate. I’ve talked to reporters who covered the Wakefield paper in 1998, and they’ve said, well, we eventually got it right. That really seems like a copout to me. It’s impossible to un-scare someone.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I wonder if this problem isn’t baked into journalism, not just the desire to cover a conflict where the two sides are evenly matched, but also, in this case, particularly, the narrative is skewed towards the wrong side. I mean, on one side you have parents bravely battling for their children’s lives and then on the other, the big, bad pharmaceutical companies. I mean, anyone who’s ever gone to a movie knows who they’re supposed to vote for.
SETH MNOOKIN: It’s why Erin Brockovich is a successful movie and the opposite of it would not be. There is a certain part of it baked into journalism, but it’s much more prevalent in politics, science and medicine. You don’t see it in business. If someone came along and said, hey everyone, my company is actually as valuable as Apple, no business reporter would write a piece saying John Doe, who just started this company, claims that his company is as valuable as Apple. Apple Computer says, actually, it’s – has more cash than any other company in the world because it would be ridiculous. But you do get that in science and medicine and in politics.
When, you know, someone makes an outrageous claim and journalists act as if coming down and saying that’s false or not even reporting it because it’s demonstrably false, would somehow mean that they were taking a side. I, I think that’s a ridiculous notion. I think that committing yourself to reporting what is accurate does not mean that you’re – you’re taking a side.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seth, thank you very much.
SETH MNOOKIN: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Seth Mnookin is the author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Autism Vaccine Controversy.