NPR Addresses Vaccines and Autism: A Story of Medicine, Science and Fear
Feb 02, 2011

By Christine Vara
This afternoon, on the Diane Rehm Show on NPR, there was an important conversation taking place.  Three guests joined Diane Rehm in the studio to discuss vaccines and autism.  Each guest had a unique perspective to contribute regarding the medicine, science and fear that surrounds the vaccine concerns of today’s parents. 
Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus:  a True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear.  As a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, and a former senior writer for Newsweek, Mr. Mnookin has the insight of a seasoned journalist.  In this broadcast, he explains the impact the media has had in the suggestion of a link between vaccines and autism.  He details how parents have come to conclusions based upon the way in which the stories have been covered by the press and the framework that this has unintentionally created around the science.     
Alison Singer, President of the Autism Science Foundation, detailed her interest in the subject as a parent of an autistic child.  As the former Executive Vice President of Autism Speaks, Alison explains that after four years with the organization, she could no longer stay.   When study after study had been done, and none could replicate the initial Wakefield findings or indicate any link between vaccines and autism, Alison became convinced by the overwhelming scientific evidence.   “It got to the point where I asked how many studies do we need?  We now have over two dozen studies.”  However she grew concerned that in response to each study, Autism Speaks would make an official statement that more studies needed to be done.   Alison knew that research funds could be better spent elsewhere, and so she left her position at Autism Speaks and became the founder and president of the Autism Science Foundation where the emphasis is on funding science that will help families dealing with autism. 
The third guest who joined Diane Rehm was there to offer her medical perspective.   Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Children’s National Medical Center, is someone who treats patients with vaccine preventable diseases.  She agreed with Mr. Mnookin’s assessment of the media and the fear that has been created.  She agreed with Mrs. Singer that a small group of people remain who will not believe in the scientific method.  She also acknowledges that parents continue to voice concerns regarding vaccines, but clarifies that these concerns are not limited to autism, but also involve concern over the number of vaccines given and the additives as well. 
“Her message was highlighted by one particular statement.  Parents have a “fear of what they do see” (the prevalence of autism), “but what is really a harm is what they don’t see” (the prevalence of vaccine preventable diseases).  In order to reduce the fear, she explains the need for better communication.  For instance, she estimated that in her experience, 75-80% of parents, who were previously afraid to vaccinate their children, had changed their mind once they had their questions addressed by doctors.  During the broadcast, Dr. DeBiasi suggests that it is often challenging to explain the science of infectious diseases and immunizations in layman’s terms.  Yet, when questioned on air regarding the number of vaccines a child receives, she responded with reassuring words that explained the scientific reasons why multiple vaccinations are not overwhelming children, though many people mistakenly think so. 
Overall, I found this broadcast to be informative and insightful.  It addressed various aspects of the fear and helped to clarify the science.  It weighs in favor of the science, but acknowledges the emotions.  You can listen to the recorded audio segment here and share your thoughts on the broadcast with us in the comments below.  We want to hear from you.

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9 responses to “NPR Addresses Vaccines and Autism: A Story of Medicine, Science and Fear”

  1. More Information? says:

    Could you please provide links to the two dozen studies cited disproving vaccine/autism link?

  2. Janice says:

    In laymans terms, Autism is defined by genetic link yet to be defined. Most children who are diagnosed with autism could really be suffering from a weakened immune system. Just imagine if you were exposed naturally to chicken pox, rubella, measles, mumps, tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, etc. within a time period of a year, plus various bacteria and flu viruses. Wouldn’t you feel a little sick? Tired? Irritable? Stomach upset from the system overload from the sinus to the anus? Catch every viral bug in sight for months? Headache? Allergies? Asthma? Muscle Pain? Chronic infection and/or inflammation? The pieces of the puzzle are right there in the pain that the children diagnosed with idiopathic autism exhibit…no one sees the big picture because they want to define autism by the behaviors of less than 5% of children with a genetic form of “Autism”. Big difference…

  3. Nathan says:

    If I experienced all of those wild viruses within a year, there is a good chance I would be dead, or have some other permanent sequelae. But I would not suddenly be immunodeficient, have asthma, allergies, chronic infection, or autism. Or have “system overload from sinus to anus.” If I avoided the diseases’ complications, I would be fine, and my immune system would be better for it.
    The immune system is not a gas tank. It does not get “used up” any more than the brain gets “used up” from learning too much.
    The problem is that a percentage of people do not survive the wild infection, or make it through without permanent sequelae. That’s why we vaccinate.

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  5. Physiology says:


  6. conrad says:

    Let us look at a very serious fraud that has merit. The case of Jenny McCarthy and those making money off this fraud: the case of her son supposedly being autistic, when numerous reports are strongly suggesting he was never autistic but has Landau Kleffner Syndrome. A 2010 Report Reads: “Jenny McCarthy’s Son May Not Have Had Autism After All “After years of speaking publicly about her belief that MMR shots (immunization for measles, mumps, and rubella) caused her son to suffer from autism, Jenny McCarthy now faces the reality that her 7-year-old son Evan — who no longer shows any signs of autism — may likely have lived with completely different illness. A new article in Time magazine — which Jenny was interviewed for — suggests Evan suffers from Landau-Kleffner syndrome, “a rare childhood neurological disorder that can also result in speech impairment and possible long-term neurological damage…..And though her son may never have had autism, Jenny insists, “I’ll continue to be the voice” of the disorder.” woe……………Heck, guess it don’t matter much if you’re honest when you publish a book about your kid having a disorder he never had, just so long as everyone’s making money, right? this is such a slap in the face to the autism community and still, McCarthy will not admit her son was never autistic. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t want to lose her endorsements and connections and celebrity status as a so called mom of autistic kid, the autistic kid who never had autism that is. Her son recovered after he took seizure medications which is landau kleffner typical. How can anyone take the vaccine autism link seriously with this kind of ridiculousness? If there was ever a chance to convince the public vaccines are linked to autism, Jenny McCarthy’s false portrayal of her son being autistic and vaccines causing it –didn’t help.

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