Friday, April 30, 2010

Autism Awareness: Frontline and "Moms against science"

Earlier this week, PBS broadcast its Frontline piece on "The Vaccine Wars," touching on the MMR vaccine-autism debate and the Thimerosal-autism debate, both of which are still ongoing in some communities in spite of the fact that the supposed links have been debunked. I watched the show online (you can do so here), and was disappointed by the way that the show pitted anecdotal evidence from parents against research and advice from medical professionals. As Dr. Jay Gordon put it in an open letter to one of Frontline's co-producers, the program created "a pseudo-documentary with a preconceived set of conclusions: 'Irresponsible moms against science' was an easy takeaway from the show." I agree completely, and we're discussing the show -- and what it means for parents who avoid vaccinating or who are proponents of an alternative vaccine schedule -- at my new parenting column for the Boston Globe, In the Parenthood.

An assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA Medical School who has reservations about vaccinations, Dr. Gordon's multi-hourlong interview with Frontline ended up on the cutting room floor, he says, as did an interview with Dr. Robert W. Sears, author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child, who advocates an alternative vaccination schedule. Evidence in favor of vaccination was provided by researchers including Dr. Paul Offit, who has earned millions of dollars as the co-creator of the RotaTeq vaccine, is a paid spokesman for Merck, and has said that he thinks infants' immune systems could theoretically handle as many as 10,000 vaccinations at one time, or perhaps "closer to 100,000."

The Vaccine War also delved into the way not vaccinating kids leads to a dangerous breach in herd immunity (Moms against science AND society!), but didn't touch on vaccine failure. (It does happen: An outbreak of the mumps in New York and New Jersey last year was not caused by a lack of immunization; in fact, most of the more-than 1,500 patients had been properly vaccinated against it.) And while it dismissed the issue of mercury being used as a preservative in vaccines for children, it didn't discuss at all about the plethora of other additives and adjuvants, like alumnium, to which some children could also be reacting.

Instead of presenting and moderating a thoughtful discussion about vaccines and the concerns surrounding them -- something that you will find, thankfully, over at the forums -- the show went with the status quo, dismissing anecdotal evidence instead of considering it a springboard for future scientific study. It reignited the attention-grabbing, divisive argument about parenting and childhood vaccines -- and missed the opportunity to actually make a difference.

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