Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: THE PANIC VIRUS

I interrupt the new-book roll-out posts to paste in my Goodreads review for Seth Mnookin's THE PANIC VIRUS. (Forgive me if we're already friends on Goodreads and you feel like I'm beating you over the head with it. I just think it's that good.)

If this review is incoherent, it's because I stayed up way too late finishing this book...

Seth Mnookin chronicles the history of the feared vaccine-autism connection. Until I read The Panic Virus, I wasn't positive which the data finally came down on, but now I know. My main take-aways:

1. Only three vaccines ever did contain thimerosal (ethylmercury) as a preservative. Ethylmercury is not the same thing as the decidedly harmful methylmercury. Thimerosal has been phased out of all vaccines since 2001, and yet autism diagnoses continue to rise.

2. The man who originally raised the MMR-vaccine-causes-autism specter published in The Lancet, but his work failed to be reproducible by any scientific or medical peers and was since discredited. When he produced his study, he himself had patented an oral, measles-only vaccine--the demand for which would surge if the standard MMR combination vaccine was discredited.

3. Despite follow-on studies around the world failing to support any vaccine-autism link, the press and show biz have made it a cause celebre, and vaccine rates have dropped, leading to a rise in cases of preventable infectious disease. (In my own neighborhood, we received two messages from the schools about a whooping cough--pertussis--outbreak.)

4. When vaccination rates drop below 90-95%, the population as a whole loses its "herd immunity." Not only are the deliberately unvaccinated children at risk, but the babies not yet old enough to receive the vaccinations suffer the greatest danger of exposure and make up the highest number of deaths among the infected.

The stories of desperate parents struggling with severely autistic children were heartbreaking. I completely understand the desire for an explanation and for hope of treatment, but after reading this book I hope more energy and funding will go toward pursuing other possible causes and culprits. What on earth does cause the frequent GI issues and allergies that accompany autism??? Are there any peer-reviewed scientific studies supporting the efficacy of strict diets and expensive nutritional supplements peddled to families with autistic children, or only anecdotal evidence?

Mnookin's discussion of the human tendency to fall victim to cognitive biases and to find comfort in conspiracy theories made me question my own tendencies in food writing to consider Big Ag as some kind of evil empire out to kill everyone with pesticides and genetically-modified seeds. Our bodies are complicated things. I imagine all the crap we're eating doesn't help matters, but no one really knows yet what all the factors are. (Would Mnookin consider tackling The Panic Cheeseburger as his next book?)

I highly, highly recommend this book. Passing it to my husband next and hope to convince my book club to read it when it's out in paperback.

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