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Sharyl Attkisson didn’t get the memo

Posted Jan 28 2011 4:54pm

Most news reporters understand that vaccines don’t cause autism. One hold out is CBS correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, whose latest story attempts to link a pediatric flu vaccine to autism spectrum disorders.

She bases her report on a recent vaccine safety update from the FDA that notes an uptick in reports of febrile seizures following Fluzone, the only influenza virus vaccine licensed in the US for infants. Fluzone is a “split-virus” vaccine, produced by chemical disruption of the influenza virus, and is incapable of causing influenza.

But Attkisson is having none of that

More confusing news for parents trying to do the best, safest things for their children when it comes to vaccination.

According to a Vaccine Safety “update” issued by the FDA on Jan. 20, there’s been an increase in reports of febrile seizures among infants and children following this year’s flu vaccine. Febrile seizures are seizures associated with fever.

According to the FDA:

“FDA and CDC have recently detected an increase in the number of reports to VAERS of febrile seizures following vaccination with Fluzone (trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine or TIV, manufactured by Sanofi Pasteur, Inc.). Fluzone is the only influenza vaccine recommended for use for the 2010-2011 flu season in infants and children 6-23 months of age. These reported febrile seizures have primarily been seen in children younger than 2 years of age.”

The FDA says 42 more seizures than usual were reported through Dec. 13; most within a day of the child receiving the flu vaccine. The FDA recommends parents take no action based on this information. They should, the FDA says, continue getting their children vaccinated against flu, as usual. (It should be noted that non-government medical experts differ on the issue of whether flu shots should be given to children.)

The FDA points out that data from VAERS, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, is preliminary and serves as a sign that further investigation is warranted. The maker of the flu vaccine in question, Sanofi Pasteur, has issued a statement saying that no clear link has been established between the flu shot and the seizures, and the cases may be nothing more than coincidence.

Even with “no clear link established,” the mere suggestion of a link may be troubling to parents.


So what’s a biased, scientifically-challenged CBS reporter to do? Create a link that doesn’t exist, in order to scare parents even more!
A new study from the department of Pediatrics and Neurology at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine discusses how early life seizures “may contribute to the enhanced risk of IDD’s (Intellectual and Development Disabilities) and ASD’s (Autism Spectrum Disorders.)”

Attkisson has either not read the study she cites, does not understand it, or has a very dark agenda. The paper discusses patients with early life seizures and epilepsy. Attkisson gloms on to the findings and applies them, with no credible reason, to the general population.

That’s not the only major fail in this story. The 42 extra cases of febrile seizure reported in the VAERS database do not come close to establishing causality. Instead of telling readers the FDA report is no cause for alarm, Attkisson does the exact opposite

Even with “no clear link established,” the mere suggestion of a link may be troubling to parents.

Attkisson has been carrying water for the anti-vaccine movement for years. Last September, she mischaracterized the Hannah Poling case as an admission by the US government that vaccines cause autism. And here she is, only a year ago, massaging Andrew Wakefield’s bruised ego.

One major lesson from l’affaire Wakefield is that reporting on scientific research is no small thing, and comes with great responsibility. Dick Ahlstrom, writing in today’s Irish Times , could be speaking directly to Attkisson when he writes

Balance in journalism generally means presenting both sides of a story, allowing all those involved to state their views. Striking this balance should allow the journalist to remain neutral on the issue. We present the facts and readers form their own opinions on the subject.

But what are facts and how can we know they are true? Achieving balance is supposed to overcome this problem for the journalist – we don’t have to be experts on a subject, we just have to report honestly and accurately on what is said and present the views of both sides, leaving it up to the reader to decide.

Yet achieving that balance can in itself throw a story severely off balance, with reportage on climate change a perfect example. Balance dictates that the reporter should give an equal amount of linage to those who argue that the changes we are seeing in the climate and the persistent warming trends are caused by human activity and to those “climate sceptics” who say it is caused by changes in the sun or other natural phenomena.

Both sides of this argument will present scientific data, or “facts”, to prove what they say is true. Both sides will quote professors and throw in scientific findings but the public – like the reporter – will not automatically know which set of “facts” is more reliable.

If normal journalistic balance is applied then both arguments will be presented as having equal weight. But this ignores the reality of the research findings in climate change. While both sides can quote their professors and experts, more than 95 per cent of all the research findings support claims for human induced climate change. Findings quoted by the climate sceptics represent only a tiny fraction of all the research being done.


Unless Attkisson has been reporting from a cave for the last few years, she should know that the vast weight of evidence speaks against a vaccine-autism link. To suggest otherwise, via her double bank shot association of unrelated facts, makes her unfit as a health and science reporter.

cross posted at AutismNewsBeat

  1. Science Mom:
    Not shocking given the vapid, one-trick-pony Attkisson is. I am disappointed, however, that CBS hasn't seen fit to reign her in, give her a brain transplant or replace her.
  2. Liz Ditz:
    For a refreshing change of pace, please read Bill Heisel's seven part series on what health reporters should learn from the Wakefield debacle. The link is to the last post in the series -- it has links to the previous six. http://www.reportingonhealth.org/blogs/wakefields-wake-part-7-blowback-can-be-fierce-and-frightening-autism-vaccine-stories#comment-549
  3. sharon:
    I am making the assumption that journalists operates under a code of ethics? And that those codes closely reflect the points made by Mr Ahlstrom? So I wonder if there is capacity to write to CBS outlining any perceived contraventions by their staff? I'm sure it's been done already, and so I wonder what the standard response is? I suppose this is a question for anyone who has made the effort previously to write a complaint, or for a journalist to explain what if any procedures exist when written complaints are made about journalistic integrity, or lack thereof?

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