The Panic Virus
Are our feelings “a more reliable barometer than facts?” If you think you know something ‘in your gut,’ do you ignore the science that strongly suggests you are wrong?
I started this book before Jenny McCarthy was hired to be on The View, reminding many of us of how her activism has likey harmed so many children. While some are looking forward to seeing her strong personality come out while discussing the latest pop culture news with Whoopie Goldberg, others are frustrated that ABC would give her a platform that could ostensibly lead to more discussion about the myth that vaccines cause autism.
The Panic Virus is about much more than the vaccine vs. autism ‘controversy.’ It’s about science – the scientific method, the meaning of ‘theory’ in a scientific context, the fear of the unknown, the rights of the individual, and what we owe to each other. Mr. Mnookin doesn’t spend more than a chapter on Jenny McCarthy (although it is a fascinating one – did you know she was an indigo mom?), and Andrew Wakefield of course features but is not the main player. Science and families compete for the stage as Mr. Mnookin expertly weaves together the history of vaccine fear with the benefits of vaccines and the devastation of autism with the fatal consequences of pertussis on a baby too young to be vaccinated.
These two areas of focus fascinated me as I took this book in. What do parents owe their children – a vaccine against a disease few people have seen in recent years? A ‘better’ chance of not developing autism? What do community members owe to each other – helping to build the herd immunity if possible? Trusting science when it has repeatedly shown the lack of widespread harm of something?
I am not a parent. I am also not a scholar of vaccine history. I am, however, someone who appreciates science, and this book has laid out some of the amazing history of vaccines (including some moments that were extraordinarily poorly handled). It deals with the fact that some children are injured by vaccines, but not on the scale or in the ways that most folks who oppose vaccines claim. When a child with autism is shown with the distraught parents who argue that their child was a happy, perfect baby until immediately after he or she received the MMR vaccine, it’s hard not to empathize. The ‘one child injured by vaccines is one too many’ argument is pretty tough to accept, however, when one looks both at the STRONG evidence that vaccines do not cause the harm these parents claim coupled with the very clear reality that those who either cannot be vaccinated or who do not build immunity from the vaccine are at a real risk from those who refuse vaccines.
The politics of the different autism organizations, the piss poor media coverage, and the celebrity focus are all fascinating, but I was more intrigued by the broader debate over what we owe to each other. Can I be a good citizen if, knowing full well that I can get vaccinated, I choose not to, and then pass pertussis on to a friend’s baby who isn’t old enough to get the vaccine? Is there an obligation to act in the interest of others when the risk to yourself (or your child) is so much less than the risk to the community?
I highly recommend this book. It’s not horribly long, it’s interesting, it’s infuriating, and it’s an important topic to know and understand.