This week, the open-access journal PLoS Biology investigates why the debunked vaccine-autism
theory won't go away. Senior science writer/editor Liza Gross talks to medical
anthropologists, science historians, vaccine experts, social scientists, and
pediatricians to explore the factors keeping the dangerous notion alive - and
its proponents so vitriolic.
Pediatrician Paul Offit has made it his mission to set the record straight:
vaccines don't cause autism. But he won't go on Larry King Live - where he could
reach millions of viewers - or anyplace celebrity anti-vaccine crusaders like
Jenny McCarthy appear. ''Every story has a hero, victim, and villain,'' he
explains. ''McCarthy is the hero, her child is the victim - and that leaves one
role for you.''
When she read that hecklers were issuing death threats to spokespeople who
simply reported studies showing that vaccines were safe, anthropologist Sharon
Kaufman dropped her life's work on aging to study the theory's grip on public
discourse. To Kaufman, a researcher with a keen eye for detecting major cultural
shifts, these unsettling events signaled a deeper trend. ''What happens when the
facts of bioscience are relayed to the public and there is disbelief, lack of
trust?'' Kaufman wondered. ''Where does that lead us?''
Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccines don't cause autism, one in four
Americans still think they do. Not surprisingly, the first half of 2008 saw the
largest US outbreak of measles - one of the first infectious diseases to
reappear after vaccination rates drop - since 2000, when the native disease was
declared eliminated. Mumps and whooping cough have also made a comeback. Last
year in Minnesota, five children contracted Hib, the most common cause of
meningitis in young children before the vaccine was developed in 1993. Three of
the children, including a 7-month-old who died, hadn't received Hib vaccines
because their parents either refused or delayed vaccination.
Now, more than ten years after unfounded doubts about vaccine safety first
emerged, scientists and public health officials are still struggling to get the
story out. Their task is made far more difficult by the explosion of
misinformation on the Internet, talk shows, and high-profile media outlets, by
journalists' tendency to cover the issue as a "debate," and, as Kaufman argues,
by an erosion of trust in experts.
Information technology has transformed the way trust and knowledge are
produced, Kaufman says: ''Scientists have to consider their role in this changed
landscape and how to compete with these other sources of knowledge.'' Simply
relating the facts of science isn't enough. No matter that the overwhelming
weight of evidence shows that vaccines don't cause autism. When scientists find
themselves just one more voice in a sea of ''opinions'' about a complex
scientific issue, misinformation takes on a life of its own.