Highlights from the NYT Magazine profile of Andrew Wakefield

April 21st, 2011 → 9:41 am @

This morning, The New York Times Magazine posted Susan Dominus’s lengthy profile of Andrew Wakefield.

As I told Dominus, I have conflicted feelings about pieces like this. On one level, I think they run the risk of simply giving more oxygen to someone who has already taken significantly more of the media’s attention than he deserves. There’s a sort of bizarro-world nature to the correlation between the attention Wakefield receives and the total scientific bankruptcy of his notions…and in a month when an entire Virginia school had to be shut down because of a whooping cough outbreak spread by non-vaccinated students and ten (and counting) children have been hospitalized in Minnesota because of a measles outbreak started by a deliberately unvaccinated child, I’m not sure the rantings of a disgraced doctor who was caught on tape joking about drawing blood from children at his son’s birthday party needs any more attention. (more…)

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Researcher who “does not meet the standard of reliability required by case law” good enough for PBS’s Newshour

April 20th, 2011 → 11:22 am @

As you might have heard, PBS’s Newshour is in the midst of a six-part series on autism. It’s being hosted by Robert MacNeil, who returned to the show for the first time in 16 years to work on a special that he says is the first time in his career that he used his family’s personal stories to inform his reporting.

As I said on Monday, he shouldn’t have come out of retirement. The series has been an embarrassment. (For my take on the series’s first episode, see my post titled “An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda to Robert MacNeil’s career.” For my thoughts on the ineffective counter-tactics of the AAP, see “[Abstracts] vs. anecdotes: What we have here is a failure to communicate.” And for an example of how the series will be used by anti-vaccine activists to legitimize their efforts, see “The first of many statements yoking Robert MacNeil to the vaccine-autism canard.“) (more…)

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The first of many statements yoking Robert MacNeil to the vaccine-autism canard

April 19th, 2011 → 12:02 pm @

Exhibit A in why Robert MacNeil’s “Autism Now” series has been reckless and irresponsible is a press release issued by Alison MacNeil and SafeMinds* titled, “Daughter of Journalist Robert MacNeil States that Son Regressed Into Autism After Vaccines.”

Notice that it does not say “Alison MacNeil believes that son regressed into autism after vaccines,” or “Family member featured on Newshour believes son regressed into autism after vaccines.” Instead, it invokes a trusted, even revered, newsman and links his name to the “statement” that a child’s autism was called by vaccines.

The rest of the press release contains a drum-beat of half-truths presented as fact (the U.S. has the most aggressive vaccine schedule in the world, the U.S.’s vaccine schedule is a “grand experiment”), either-or fallacies and rhetorical sleights of hand (“are we trading the elimination of childhood disease for a lifetime of disability?”), non sequiturs (“one-fifth of all U.S. children take at least one prescription medication”), and scare tactics (“I have never met a family willing to sacrifice their child for the good of the herd”).

Obviously, any group (or person) has the right to release a statement that makes all sorts of claims. The problem here is that by framing the first hour of his autism special the way he did, Robert MacNeil opened himself (and Newshour) to charges that he’s actually promoting a scientifically disproven (and dangerous) theory. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of this in the days to come.

* SafeMinds is an acronym for Sensible Action For Ending Mercury Induced Neurological Disorders. It is a parent-advocacy group founded in the wake of fears that an ethyl-mercury based preservative used in some childhood vaccines was causing autism. That preservative, thimerosal, was shown in numerous studies not to cause autism; it was also removed from childhood vaccines a decade ago.

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[Abstracts] vs. anecdotes: What we have here is a failure to communicate

April 18th, 2011 → 10:25 pm @

The fact that so many people still believe vaccines cause autism is due to many factors — but ultimately, I think it’s a failure of communication on virtually every level.

Today, Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, unintentionally provided another example of how the medical infrastructure in this country has a lot to learn in that department. In what was intended to be a partial antidote to the embarrassing PBS Newshour series “Autism Now,” Pediatrics released 18 vaccine-safety reports for free. As far as scientific journal articles goes, they’re fairly easy to understand…but compare Pediatrics‘s point of entry: (more…)

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An embarrassing, reckless, and irresponsible coda to Robert MacNeil’s career

April 18th, 2011 → 10:09 pm @

PBS’s Newshour is currently in the middle of a multi-part special on autism. The series brings Robert MacNeil back to the show for the first time in 16 years. If it turns out to be MacNeil’s swan song, it’ll be an embarrassing coda to his career.

The series kicked off with an episode titled “Autism Now: Robert MacNeil Shares Grandson Nick’s Story.” Here’s MacNeil’s introduction:

I’ve been a reporter on and off for 50 years, but I’ve never brought my family into a story, until Nick, because he moves me deeply. Also because I think his story can help people understand his form of autism and help me understand it better.

The rest of the hour-long program shows in spades why MacNeil would have been well-served by sticking to the principles that he’d followed for so long. (more…)

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An Age of Autism editor confronts child abuse on a school bus

April 7th, 2011 → 12:46 pm @

Kim Stagliano is one of the best-known figures within the anti-vaccine autism advocacy community. She can be brash, funny, and blunt. (If the National Vaccine Information Center’s Barbara Loe Fisher is the movement’s TV-ready super-ego, Stagliano is its id.) In November, she published a book titled All I Can Handle: I’m No Mother Theresa, which details her experiences raising three daughters with autism. (Jenny McCarthy wrote the introduction.) (more…)

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Today’s lesson: “Alternative” Virginia school closes after half of its students infected with pertussis. All of them were unvaccinated.

April 6th, 2011 → 12:37 pm @

One of the most painful chapters to write in The Panic Virus was the story of Danielle and Ralph Romaguera, whose infant daughter, Brie, died of a pertussis infection when she was less than two months old. (In January, I recorded a Vanity Fair podcast with that chapter of the book.) Whooping cough is a scary, scary disease — as the Romagueras, or the parents of any of the ten infants who died of pertussis last year in California, can attest. (Nine of those children were under six months old, which is the age at which a child following the CDC-recommended vaccine schedule would be fully vaccinated.) (more…)

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