Vaccines have been moving up a notch or two recently on the national news agenda, due in part to the slow building panic over an impending H1N1 epidemic. As a result, more news editors have been green-lighting some hard-hitting, reality-based articles. You know, journalism.
Most notable is Epidemic of Fear in Wired Magazine, an unapologetic, take-no-prisoners report by Wired newcomer Amy Wallace. Most of the story centers on a profile of Dr. Paul Offit, the man whom vaccine rejectionists love to hate. What makes the story exceptional is an absence of false balance that dilutes most vaccine news coverage. Wallace wants us to know that the “controversy” over vaccines exists solely in fluff news articles and on fringe, conspiracy-oriented websites. She couldn’t be more right:
The doubters and deniers are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.
Wallace perfectly captures the carnival atmosphere of an anti-vaccine conference, where shameless marketing fills the void left by legitimate science. It’s one of the great unreported stories out there:
At this year’s Autism One conference in Chicago, I flashed more than once on Carl Sagan’s idea of the power of an “unsatisfied medical need.” Because a massive research effort has yet to reveal the precise causes of autism, pseudo-science has stepped aggressively into the void. In the hallways of the Westin O’Hare hotel, helpful salespeople strove to catch my eye as I walked past a long line of booths pitching everything from vitamins and supplements to gluten-free cookies (some believe a gluten-free diet alleviates the symptoms of autism), hyperbaric chambers, and neuro-feedback machines.
To a one, the speakers told parents not to despair. Vitamin D would help, said one doctor and supplement salesman who projected the equation “No vaccines + more vitamin d = no autism” onto a huge screen during his presentation. (If only it were that simple.) Others talked of the powers of enzymes, enemas, infrared saunas, glutathione drips, chelation therapy (the controversial — and risky — administration of certain chemicals that leech metals from the body), and Lupron (a medicine that shuts down testosterone synthesis).
Over at Slate.com, Stephanie Tatel worries that vaccine-rejecting parents are putting her immune compromised son at risk. She’s willing to give those parents the benefit of the doubt, wondering if they truly realize the consequences of their actions. But she doesn’t pull every punch:
Because we want him to have as “normal” a life as possible, we’ll likely send him off in the bright yellow school bus and cross our fingers that the kid sitting next to him didn’t just attend a “chicken pox party” over the weekend. Because what’s “just a case of chicken pox” for that kid could be a matter of life or death for mine.
Nothing focuses the mind, or editorial opinion, like a looming catastrophe. Editors at the Milwaukee Journal are finally over their Jenny McCarthy crush, using words like “myth makers” to describe vaccine rejectionists. Good for them.
Forget about Bill Maher and Glenn Beck. Go get a flu shot – especially if you belong to a group most at risk for the disease. The vaccinations are safe, they are effective and they build a wall of protection for you and your community.
Maher, a left-wing comedian, wrote on Twitter recently: “If u get a swine flu shot ur an idiot.”
Beck, a conservative talk show host for Fox News, raised the possibility that the neurological disease Guillain-Barré Syndrome would break out. “How much do you trust your government?” Beck asked. “I think that’s the main question.”
Think about it for a moment. Glenn Beck? Bill Maher? Or the best scientists in the country?
We’ll go with the scientists. They believe the swine flu vaccine is safe. They believe Americans who are most at risk should receive it.
Slowly but surely, the media narrative is changing from “vaccines are controversial” to “vaccine rejectionism is dangerous”. It’s about time.