When fear-mongering wins: the autism/vaccine story

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On Feb. 28, 1998, a British physician named Andrew Wakefield published a paper that purported to identify a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism in children. The results provoked a widespread backlash against vaccines, forcing the medical community to spend years debunking his false claims.

Eventually, it was revealed that Dr. Wakefield had fabricated his research as part of a scheme to reap millions of dollars. His medical license was stripped and his paper retracted, but the damage was done. His propaganda has led to decreased immunization rates and outbreaks of disease.

Dr. Wakefield's falsified claims remain at the core of a stubbornly popular anti-vaccination movement. To this day, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many people believe vaccines are the main cause of autistic disorders.

One of the most prominent promoters of this falsehood is actress Jenny McCarthy, who was recently made a co-host of ABC's hit daytime talk-show, "The View." The mere act of hiring her would seem to credit her as a reliable source.

In 2007, Ms. McCarthy debuted her views on the national stage when she appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to discuss autism, which is growing at alarming rates and continues to baffle medical researchers. She was convinced that vaccines gave her son autism and seizures. In addition to a gluten-free diet, aromatherapies, B-12 shots and vitamins, she also tried chelation therapy, which is meant to remove toxic substances from the body. Her son, she claimed, was "cured." Ms. McCarthy cited as reasons for her success a "little voice" and her "mommy instincts," all while denigrating several doctors and EMTs.

Oprah Winfrey's decision to let Ms. McCarthy act as an expert and dismiss science with alchemy, without asking any tough questions, was unconscionable. "Larry King Live" and "Good Morning America" hosted Ms. McCarthy soon after. They at least asked questions about her views, but Larry King had her debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same weight as those of a medical expert.

Ms. McCarthy's beliefs -- that vaccines and mercury cause autism, that a good diet cures autism and that "diagnosticians and pediatricians have made a career out of telling parents autism is a hopeless condition" -- have been roundly dismissed and discredited by doctors and scientists, who insist that her claims are based on no scientific data or research. Ms. McCarthy wasn't deterred. "The University of Google," she said to Oprah, "is where I got my degree from."

Let's be clear: There is no connection between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy's fear-mongering is incredibly dangerous, especially when a quarter of parents trust the information provided by celebrities about the safety of vaccines. A movement borne out of Dr. Wakefield's discredited research, animated by misinformation and promoted by people like Ms. McCarthy, has fed an anti-vaccine frenzy, leading to a huge spike in cases of whooping cough in communities across the United States.

We see the same dangerous nonsense playing out with the HPV vaccine, a major breakthrough that can prevent cervical cancer and, it was recently found, throat cancer in men and women. Unfortunately, parents studying at Ms. McCarthy's alma mater, the University of Google, are absorbing misinformation and refusing to vaccinate their kids.

These incidents reflect a broader disconnect between science and the media. The vast majority of scientists accept that evolution is real, that man-made climate change is occurring and that vaccines do not cause autism. But in the general public, these issues are often hotly debated, and, too often, the media fuels these arguments by airing junk science as though it were legitimate. The result? A major public health risk. Vaccine avoidance makes the entire country more susceptible to diseases like the measles that were once vanquished.

False equivalency is one of journalism's great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve "balance," reporters often obscure the truth. What's the merit in "he said, she said" reporting when he says the world is round and she insists it is flat. Indeed, there is an enormous cost to society when the truth could save lives.


Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. Copyright (C) 2013 The Nation -- distributed by Agence Global.


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