Do vaccines cause autism or other neuro-developmental disorders? Scientists know that vaccines don't, but the idea lingers everywhere -- on talk shows and blogs and in conversations between parents and their child's pediatrician. It lingers because many people in this country and elsewhere think that vaccines just might not be good for us.
In two books that tell the story of the panic over vaccines, Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and Seth Mnookin, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, argue that bad people pursuing careers or fame or ratings or God knows what became purveyors of falsehoods that duped otherwise decent people into thinking vaccines could harm their children. That duplicity has led parents to make bad decisions -- not to vaccinate their children or to vaccinate them on a non-recommended schedule -- which turn out to be potentially deadly not just for their own children but for others.
How we got into this mess is the focus of both Mnookin's The Panic Virus and Offit's Deadly Choices. The casts of characters overlap, but the emphasis of each is different. Ironically, the journalist (Mnookin) focuses more on the malefactors of science, while the scientist (Offit) focuses more on the malefactors of the media. But each has a special distaste for the one closest to him: Mnookin for the journalist David Kirby, who helped sell the belief that mercury in vaccines caused an epidemic of autism, and Offit for the pediatrician Bob Sears, who willy-nilly invented a "new and improved" vaccination schedule.