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Wired Magazine: an epidemic of fear

Posted Oct 20 2009 10:01pm

Amy Wallace has written her first piece for Wired Magazine, and it is sure to draw a lot of attention. The article, An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, covers a lot of ground. The main focus is basically an extended interview with Dr. Paul Offit.

Just in case there are any readers who haven’t heard of Dr. Offit, he is an infectious disease specialist, co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine, and outspoken critic of the idea that vaccines caused an autism epidemic. Or, as Ms. Wallace writes in her introduction, “To hear his enemies talk, you might think Paul Offit is the most hated man in America.”

Orac, over at Respectful Insolence, has already blogged the article.

The piece points out the very real dangers of vaccine preventable diseases. It also discusses briefly some of the luminaries of the anti-vaccine movement: people like Jenny McCarthy, Robert F. Kennedy Jr and his deeply flawed article in Rolling Stone, Barbara Loe Fisher…unfortunately it is a long list.

Ms. Wallace also discusses autism’s thriving alternative medical community. Search for “Enter the snake oil salesmen” if you want to find that section quickly. Ms. Wallace attended an Autism One conference and reports on her findings.

In discussing how the membership in the CDC ’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices has changed from mostly medical and vaccine professionals to mostly epidemiologists and public health professionals, Ms. Wallace writes:

That’s not by accident. According to science journalist Michael Specter, author of the new book Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives, the controversy surrounding vaccine safety has made lack of expertise a requirement when choosing members of prominent advisory panels on the issue. “It’s shocking,” Specter says. “We live in a country where it’s actually a detriment to be an expert about something.” When expertise is diminished to such an extent, irrationality and fear can run amok.

Dr. Offit makes a very good point in the article about risk:

“The choice not to get a vaccine is not a choice to take no risk,” he says. “It’s just a choice to take a different risk, and we need to be better about saying, ‘Here’s what that different risk looks like.’ Dying of Hib meningitis is a horrible, ugly way to die.”

Unfortunately, we now have highly visible doctors like “Doctor Bob” Sears who recommend that people who don’t vaccinate “hide in the herd” so to speak. He tells people in his book that if they don’t vaccinate they should keep quiet about it so that vaccination rates stay high and their family remains protected by the rest of us who do vaccinate.

While morally reprehensible, Dr. Bob’s advice is accurate. From the Wired story:

The frightening implications of this kind of anecdote were illustrated by a 2002 study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases. Looking at 3,292 cases of measles in the Netherlands, the study found that the risk of contracting the disease was lower if you were completely unvaccinated and living in a highly vaccinated community than if you were completely vaccinated and living in a relatively unvaccinated community. Why? Because vaccines don’t always take. What does that mean? You can’t minimize your individual risk unless your herd, your friends and neighbors, also buy in.

Wired makes special note of the organizations which are particularly vocal in the “anti-vaccine” message:

Anti-Vaccine Websites

Though many of these organizations would not define themselves as such, these are the most active organizations and websites in the current battle against vaccines:

National Vaccine Information Center
Autism One
Generation Rescue
Treating Autism
National Autism Association
Autism File

As Orac points out, the Age of Autism blog would fit in well with the above list.

I wish I could bet on the criticisms that are headed towards Dr. Offit after this article. I’m fairly confident I can pick out the paragraphs that will be focused upon.

If you read the article, you will understand this: Bonnie, thanks for loaning us your husband. He is a true friend to children.

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