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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine,…
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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear (2011)

by Seth Mnookin

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4 solid stars.

While no one in my family has autism, I have several friends whose kids have been diagnosed with various levels of autism, some with mild, functioning autism, and others with autism so severe, the children will require care for their entire lives. The interesting part of that fact is that not a single one of parents has ever said that their child's autism was caused by a vaccine. Instead of trying to find a scapegoat for their difficult situation, they are focused on trying to live their lives and trying to raise their children to be able to live as a productive member of society. Good perspective, that.

I'm on the side of vaccines, too, and I'm not interested AT ALL into getting into a debate on that issue, so don't even try. I WILL delete your comments, report you, and block you. This is a book review on a book review site. If you want to argue or debate, go to one of the dozens of sites that you can Google on your own.

This was a very fascinating book to me, for several reasons.

First, how data is analyzed. I'm a data analyst by trade, and I cringed every time Andrew Wakefield's name and work were mentioned. It's simply amazing that he's been allowed to present his "research" for so long, especially with scientists and experts knowing his work is so faulty, it is beyond usable. The author delves deeply into scientific method, the different strategies of testing a sample population, and all sorts of works that scientists over the past couple centuries have testing their theories. Aside from the topic, it was interesting to read how these theories have changed over time, and how each of these theories have been tested.

That leads to the second point: how the results of that data is presented. It's great that scientists and mathematicians can use all sorts of data to tell us all sort of things about ourselves, about the population, about the world around us. But, and this is important to note, the results are NEVER EVER 100% perfect. In conducting this type of research, they are dealing with statistics. It is impossible to test an entire population, so statisticians determine an acceptable sized segment, and extrapolate expected results. This is often very confusing to someone not experienced with statistics, and that confusion and inexperience is exploited by those presenting the results: the media (who believes anything they have to say anyway?) and those who have something to gain from a specific outcome (lawyers, politicians, CEOs, and especially Andrew Wakefield).

Another "how" in the way data is presented relies almost solely on emotion, which is how the media works. It's no longer required for a news reporter to actually do some research into a topic such as a potential link between vaccines and autism. All the editors and producers want are stories that pull at the heartstrings, because emotional stories will keep people watching and reading (good for advertising and good for keeping $$ rolling in).

This is a very "readable" book. The author takes some pretty deep concepts in science, statistics, and history, and makes it understandable for just about anyone. He moves around history, both recent and not-so-recent, making it an interesting read from that perspective. He ties in stories from people impacted by autism and why they are fighting against the perceived powers in control. And it is heart-wrenching, there's no doubt about that. I wouldn't wish the diagnosis of autism on any family; it's extremely difficult to face, much less get through.

I don't expect people on the side of "anti-vaccine" would read this book; it goes directly against their position, undermining their arguments (even in the face of hard facts). I do hope that those that have questions would read this one, though. The author looks at both sides of the issue of vaccinations/autism, and presents a solid argument for the continuation of vaccinations. This is much more than a personal issue, as it is presented by the "anti-vaccine" side; it has a huge, wide-ranging impact on the health of society as a whole. ( )
  ssimon2000 | May 7, 2018 |
A frustrating yet informative read. In light of the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland, it seemed like a good time to finally pull this off my pile of books that were waiting to be read. I've read one of his other books 'Hard News', which is a look at The New York Times during the Jayson Blair scandal and its fallout. From that book I figured (and hoped!) this one would be just as good.
 
We've heard about Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, etc. But how what are the origins of the people who choose to wait on/spread out or completely refuse vaccinations for their children? Mnookin takes the reader into a deep dive as to how and why such a movement has developed, grown and evolved.
 
Starting with a history of vaccinations, including past epidemics and experiments people did in figuring out how we could protect ourselves from some deadly diseases. Over time, these start becoming more standardized, with trials, pharmaceutical companies producing them, etc. However, the process is never perfect. The author discusses how there have been faulty batches of vaccinations and how some people died from the very vaccines that were supposed to protect them.
 
The author does a pretty good job overall covering various aspects: from the Jenny McCarthy/celebrity angle to the clusters of neighborhoods where outbreaks are more common because there are more people who choose not to vaccinate, to the media's unwillingness (inability?) to question/desire for headlines (the Mnookin points out CNN got rid of its science unit in 2008, for example) and especially the holes in the research that people like Wakefield have done.
 
I have to admit, I must wonder what if there are those with autism and/or are parents of children who have autism think. Many of the parents in this book are understandably upset, but the lengths that they go to treat their child (with expensive and sometimes questionable procedures) and how many insist that vaccinations are the cause (and nothing else). There is something very sad in which many of those who object to vaccines would rather have their child possibly come down with one of many fatal diseases, many of which are entirely preventable.
 
The book essentially ends on this note, where Mnookin traces the story of a baby who comes down with whooping cough. At the time, because it had been almost eliminated, there was trouble with properly diagnosing her (a case of it in such a young person had not been seen by the doctors before). By the time she is correctly diagnosed with the right treatment, it is too late. She dies, just four days before she was scheduled to receive a vaccine. Her parents are unsure how she got whopping cough--the best guess by the CDC is that baby Brie may have picked it up in the pediatrician's waiting room. Brie's mom writes to the shows that had Jenny McCarthy had been on, wanting to know why such a person was allowed to espouse such views. She never hears back from any of them. Her story ends a little better though, as she and her husband went on to have other children after Brie.
 
One criticism that I must agree with is that this book preaches to the choir. Mnookin notes that health professional must do more in educating people about vaccinations but I'm not sure what good that will do. I don't know whether anti-vaxxers will read this, but I wish they would.  ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
From my Cannonball Read V review...

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. ( )
  ASKelmore | Jul 8, 2017 |
This book tells a crucial story. The only reason I gave it 3 stars instead of 4 is that I had a hard time following the sequence of it. At times The Panic Virus reads like a suspense novel, which made for very intense reading, but I would rather it had been organized differently--more like the non-fiction that it is. But I do recommend it to anyone who has second thoughts about vaccinating their children. Don't be swayed by popular "alternative medicine" and irresponsible journalism. Please think of the health of your child and all children: support immunization. ( )
  AngelaLaughing | Jan 25, 2014 |
Seth spends a great deal of time discussing the value of vaccines and the problem with some people who think vaccines can cause autism. I think I got the point about 1/5 of the way through the book. He gives more and more information on the same idea. I agree with his point that the vaccines are valuable and that there is no scientific evidence to support the autism claim. So, why must the author go on and on? ( )
  GlennBell | Aug 2, 2012 |
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"A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on."- proverb popularized by Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon in an 1855 sermon and often attributed to Mark Twain
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For Sara and Max
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On April 22, 2006, Kelly Lacey looked around her dinner table and smiled: Dan, her husband of thirteen years, was there, along with the couple's three children, Ashley, Stephen, and Matthew.
To understand the roots of modern-day fears of vaccines, it is necessary to understand vaccines themselves, and to do that requires us to look back briefly at the deadly diseases they protect against.
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A searing account of how vaccine opponents have used the media to spread their message of panic, despite no scientific evidence to support them. In this searching expose, the recent hysteria over childhood vaccinations and their alleged link to autism becomes a cautionary tale of bad science amplified by media sensationalism.… (more)

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