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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