Book review: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

The Pediatric Insider

© 2011 Roy Benaroch, MD

It could have been a riveting fictional thriller, the story of how a handful of unscrupulous scientists took advantage of parents’ fears to create a false hysteria that dominated the media and led to a resurgence of diseases in the developed world. Unfortunately, the tale of The Panic Virus by journalist Seth Mnookin is true.

Mnookin recounts the history of vaccines, and the history of accompanying anti-vaccine worries. From very early on, some parents and politicians were distrustful of vaccination, perhaps because it seemed to subvert nature’s plans for our children. There is something inherently odd—and maybe a little creepy—about deliberately inoculating a child with germy material to prevent disease.

But prevent disease, it does. Mnookin’s book isn’t heavy on the details of the public health impact of vaccines, but it does make the point in chapters about children suffering from vaccine-preventable illnesses that vaccines have been tremendously successful in keeping children healthy.

Rather than focusing too heavily on the science of vaccinations or the epidemiology of shifting patterns of disease, Mnookin’s book focuses on the people involved in the story. One point is abundantly clear: parents from both sides love their children, and want the best for their kids. Mnookin doesn’t criticize non-vaccinating parents for their belief, but rather explores how loving, educated parents can be manipulated to feel that way.

His strongest, most direct criticism is directed at the media, who time and again failed to even do cursory research into the stories that they reported. It took only a handful of fringe “scientists” to manufacture (and profit) from the story—and that was only possible because the media chose to portray their side as the David versus the cold, uncaring Goliath of the medical establishment. The media found a story that captivated, enthralled, and (above all) sold. Media figures including Oprah Winfrey, Don Imus, and Jennie McCarthy relied on their own manufactured frenzy, public health be damned. You want information that can genuinely help you raise your kids? Mnookin makes the case that the mainstream media is the last place on which you can depend.

Mnookin’s strongest material explains the “cognitive biases” that color how we perceive our world. Our feelings and impressions guide us through our days, but aren’t always the most objective, best way to make decisions. You want to pick a shirt that looks best on you? Go with your gut. You want to choose the best medicine to keep yourself healthy? It’s better to rely on science—real science—to do the plodding, slow work of separating fact from fiction.

But people, especially people desperate for help and answers, may understandably find it difficult to wait for science to untangle the complicated story. Mnookin’s book covers in great detail the characters and charlatans that took advantage of people—robbing them blind, and steering them into years of false hopes and promises.

Readers will also learn the complex history of the autism advocacy movement within the United States. They may be surprised to learn that not all—not even most—parents of autistic kids buy into the anti-vaccine rhetoric. There have been great schisms among the large autism charities about this very issue, and unfortunately it has become a great divider and distraction. Years from now, parents may place the blame squarely on the anti-vaccine propagandists for over a decade of wasted time and money and heartache. Tremendous strides are being made in researching the causes and treatment of autism. How much further ahead would be have been without this unnecessary dead-end?

Mnookin’s book ends with a detailed and fascinating recount of the Special Master’s rulings from the Vaccine Court in 2009. After a full seven years of proceedings, during which reams of evidence and documents were reviewed, the ruling was unmistakably strong and unambiguous. Calling the evidence “so one-sided”, the vaccine court ruled that there was no possibility that vaccines had caused autism in the petitioner’s children.

There are stronger books about the science of autism and vaccines, and about the real progress that’s being made in early identification and treatment of autism. (The nearly 100 pages of references provide more-than-ample sources for further reading.) Mnookin’s book concentrates on the people and the emotions, to help the reader see how vaccine distrust became such a powerful dogma in the autism community. False, yes; but it was a common thread of hope, and it bound families together who had otherwise felt alone and helpless. There are far-better resources now for parents. Books like this illustrate a far more helpful message: there is no reason to distrust vaccines, and there is far greater hope for understanding a real cure from the science community than from the virulent anti-vaccine crowd. Perhaps Mnookin’s book will be a way to bring a new hope and a new community to families fighting autism.

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2 Comments on “Book review: The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear”

  1. Cal Says:

    I really liked the book; I thought it was very well researched, and written in a way that will make it as broadly appealing as possible. After all the author is a journalist, not a scientist, and I think he did an excellent job putting years of background and the many players in a readable coherent and even exciting story.


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