Does vaccinating a child cause autism? In the face of a considerable lobby arguing in the affirmative, Vanity Fair contributor Mnookin (Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top, 2006, etc.) replies with a resounding no.
Vaccination has had its critics since the days of Edward Jenner and cowpox, but the autism scare is fairly new, gathering force with the declaration of a British gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield, in 1998, that a gut disorder was linked both to the MMR vaccine and to the onset of autism. Wakefield’s alarm echoed widely. As Mnookin notes, it seems to have been heard particularly clearly in wealthy communities and “left-leaning, well-educated enclaves,” among them Ashland, Ore., and Marin County, Calif. In these affluent areas, children are not being vaccinated, with the result that “an entire century’s worth of medical advances have effectively been reversed.” Some readers may suspect hyperbole, but the author has the numbers in his favor. Mumps, measles, whooping cough and other illnesses once thought conquered have returned, far more dangerous than the statistical risk of any mishap attributable to vaccination. Mnookin ties the current anti-vaccination fervor, which vastly outstrips earlier campaigns against vaccination (and its close cousin, fluoridation), to the flourishing of the anti-science mood generally, relating it to, say, the Kentucky legislature’s insistence that evolution be treated as a mere theory on par with creationism. But bad science and its champions are one thing, Mnookin adds; quite another is the spreading of fear and alarmism via “media outlets that eschew nuance and depth in favor of attention-grabbing declarations.” In all of these areas, the author names names—to the point that one wonders whether we’ll be hearing more about his worthy book in the legal news.
A solid work of popular science, and sure to court controversy.