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The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin

December 23, 2012

The Panic Virus presents some information that may be controversial, at least to idiots: the anti-vaccine movement that has been happening for the last 20 or so years has been totally unfounded by any scientific evidence, and in some cases has been publicly championed by people who are not only not credible, but have vested monetary interests in discrediting vaccines. Meanwhile, the media has been doing their usual craptacular job of reporting the issue by giving fringe lunatics, with nothing but their gut feelings to back up their opinions, equal airtime to people with actual facts and evidence.

Mnookin details the history of vaccines – how they were developed, historical dangers, and the eradication of formerly deadly diseases such as smallpox, measles, and rubella. He looks at historical vaccine scares, such as a vaccine that killed multiple children because the vaccine was not preserved, leading to the inclusion of mercury as a preservative in vaccines today.

Mnookin then moves on to the evidence that vaccines cause autism, the most common complaint cited by anti-vaccine activists. To be blunt, there is literally no evidence to support this idea. The evidence cited by the anti-vaccine camp is that diagnosed cases of autism have gone up as vaccination rates have gone up, and that many cases of autism are diagnosed after children receive vaccines. Mnookin shows how the increased diagnoses of autism have gone up due to factors such as changes in the diagnosis, which led to more people being diagnosed, and diagnosis as autistic those who were previously diagnosed with schizophrenia, mental retardation, and language difficulties; meanwhile, causation is not correlation, so there was no evidence to begin with. The other main argument – that vaccines precede autism diagnosis – is so ridiculous that, while Mnookin does dismantle it, it is ridiculous on its face: many things frequently come before the development of autism, such as birth, learning to crawl, learning to eat, teething; none of these things cause autism. Many things come almost exclusively after vaccines; mental illness, substance abuse and dependence, venereal disease. These things are not thought to be caused by vaccines.

While Mnookin’s book is excellent – well-written and extensively researched, with interesting anecdotes and case studies sprinkled throughout – it is somewhat terrifying that it was necessary to write. Nevertheless, it is a wonderful example of sciological science.

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