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Book Review: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear by Seth Mnookin

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In the years before the development of the measles vaccine, about 500 people per year died from measles according to Dr. Jennifer Ashton (a medical correspondent for CBS News.) After the vaccine was introduced, the disease was “pretty much 99% eradicated.” She went on to note that:

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports it’s already seen 98 cases in 2011 — double the average number for an entire year. When we see cases today in this country, they are almost entirely brought in from other parts of the world, and the people who get sick here are those who are largely not vaccinated.”

It’s the issue of vaccination – and the increase in recent years of parents opting not to vaccinate their children – that is at the heart of Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus – A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, an uncompromising look at how unfounded claims by an English researcher hoping to market a reformulated measles virus and working with a law firm looking to sue vaccine manufacturers spiralled into a movement centred on the idea that childhood vaccines cause autism, leading thousands of parents to leave their children unvaccinated.

Mnookin, a contributing editor for Vanity Fair Magazine and author of the excellent exegesis of the Jayson Blair scandal, Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media, was himself a new father while working on Panic Virus so the issue of what might or might not be a threat to a child was more than just an academic question for him. Understanding the fears that keep new parents up at night allows him to be sympathetic to many of the parents who fall for anti-vaccine movement’s misinformation while clearly condemning those who are pushing the anti-vaccine agenda for their own gain.

Mnookin also looks at some of the unintended consequences that the reduction in vaccination has had, such as the loss of what’s known as “herd immunity.” Heard immunity occurs when enough members of a community have been immunized that those viruses are unable to take hold and spread to others in the community who are too young to be vaccinated, are allergic to a component of the vaccine or otherwise are medically unable to be vaccinated.

He introduces us to a family whose daughter was too young to receive a pertussis vaccine, but became ill because of the loss of herd immunity in her community. In a few stark pages, he takes us through the course of her disease, letting us see the devastation it wreaked on her small body, and the helplessness of her parents as their infant daughter became so ill that for two weeks they weren’t even able to hold her.

While The Panic Virus has a lot of information, Mnookin relates it in such a way that makes for a fairly quick read – and one that is compelling enough that I had a hard time putting the book down. He makes no pretense of neutrality, but he backs up the disdain he shows for anti-vaccine advocates with solid, well-sourced research written with the lay person in mind. He demystifies the Vaccine Injury Court, a special court the government has established that is funded by pharmaceutical companies and provides patients who suffer from known side-effects of vaccines (and, as with any medical procedure or treatment, there are some) can present their claims and receive pre-determined settlements depending on the nature and severity of their injury.

He also shows how the initial concern cited by Andrew Wakefield – the British researcher whose work sparked the controversy and was recently declared fraudulent by the British General Medical Council – that the measles component of the MMR vaccine caused gastrointestinal distress leading to autism, morphed over time into the idea that it was thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative) in the vaccine that was the cause.

There are a few places where Mnookin lets the story wander a bit, sometimes giving the impression that there’s going to be a bigger payoff than what it actually is, and he seems to have a particular bone to pick with author David Kirby. I would like to have read more about Mark and David Geier and their promotion of chelation therapy as a treatment for autism and some of the other bizarre “cures” being offered, but given the wealth of information he does provide, it’s not a major failing of the book.

The Panic Virus is a book I would recommend to anyone about to become a parent or whose children are approaching vaccination age. Sadly, for parents who have already bought into the vaccine-causes-autism myth, it’s unlikely even a book as well-written as this will do much to change their minds, but because the decisions these parents make when they opt not to have their children vaccinated can affect all of the other children in their community, it is important for all parents to be educated about the risks.

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  • Scott Butki

    Good review. I interviewed him here.

    I’ll post a link at my interview to your review.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/thorswitch/ thorswitch

    Thanks, Scott! I didn’t see your interview until after I’d posted, but I enjoyed reading it. I added a link to it when I posted the review at my personal blog

  • Alper A.

    The best review about The Panic Virus book tat I could find so far. I will definetelly read this book. Thanks for the article.

  • ney

    Thanks for the article. Subscribed it.