Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vaccine-autism controversy alive and well

PLoS Biology has released a unfunded report consulting various experts on why the vaccine-autism theory persists despite scientists' and public health officials' best efforts to provide evidence to the contrary. 1 in 4 Americans still think vaccines stil cause autism, and vaccination rates have dropped overall, which puts people at risk for formerly eliminated diseases like measles. In Britain MMR vaccination rates lowered from 92% in 1998 to 80% by 2003. Spokespeople for scientists reporting the results of digressing studies receive death threats.

Anthropologist Sharon Kaufman believes that the persistence of the belief stems from the legislative action that revealed new information regarding the contetns of vaccines. This change in the perception of scientific fact was able to feed the speculative theories tracing vaccines to autism. Baker, the director of the program in the History of Medicine at Duke University, believes that parents also think that environmental factors are behind rising rates of autism, and that vaccines are the most obvious candidate.

Yet there also seems to be an important, media-induced tendency to view the vaccine-autism controversy as a debate, playing up misinformation that dilutes the public's trust in experts and setting up an "us versus them" scenario. Pediatrician Paul Offit summed it up best. When talking about his refusal to go on Larry King Live or any show that hosted celebrity anti-vaccine advocates like Jenny McCarthy, he said "McCarthy is the hero, her child is the victim--and that leaves one role for you."

Clearly the controversy has grown beyond the reach of scientists. It seems that, given the media-stoked debate and parental misconceptions, scientists may not be the best vessels to promote the crucial evidence in the vaccine-autism controversy. Perhaps what the issue needs is another well-known individual that can create a countering emotional appeal, one that can successfully challenge the prominent activists on the anti-vaccine side of the issue.

-Andrew Plan

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