Up until the past couple years, I rarely read non-fiction. It wasn't that I didn't like it, it was just not on my reading radar. But in the last year, my reading list has had a lot of medical non-fiction that I highly recommend: 28 Stories of AIDS in Africa, The American Plague, Better, and as of this past weekend, Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure by Dr. Paul A. Offit. I admit, I'm hooked on medical science books even though I have no desire whatsoever to be directly involved in the medical field.
Last year, I read (and reviewed) Dr. Offit's book on vaccines, and so I was quite interested in reading his follow-up book. I've already given my opinion about vaccines, so I won't rehash that here. However, the book isn't so much a parade for vaccines as it a defense of them. It largely grapples with the question: do vaccines cause autism?
It's a big question, an important question, one which parents all over the world are struggling with. The media is quick to publish studies that demonstrate the dangers of vaccines; politicians like John Kerry, Dave Weldon, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Joe Lieberman have condemned vaccines; even Oprah has jumped on the vaccines-cause-autism bandwagon. Who are parents to believe?
Offit traces of the history of the vaccine debate, beginning with the first study that linked MMR vaccines with autism.
- When it was proved without a doubt that MMR vaccines did notcause autism, mercury (thimerosal) was blamed for autism.
- When thimerosal was removed from vaccines, the rates of autism actually increased, rather than decreased. Evidently, thimerosal was not be blamed.
- After decades of research, no link has been found that ties vaccines with autism.
While Offit is clearly on the side of "vaccines do not cause autism," his book looks at the research that was given to the contrary. He spends pages highlighting the opposing research, even devoting whole chapters ("Lighting the Fuse," "Mercury Rising" ) to the story that vaccines cause autism. Each time, however, Offit provides damning evidence to the contrary. No respected medical establishment believes that vaccines cause autism.
Among many circles, that answer is not a popular opinion. Some go so far as to accuse these establishments of a mass-conspiracy, and that the government is simply unwilling to pull vaccines from the market because of the pharmaceutical company's lobbying. Offit admits that vaccines aren't perfect, but the FDA and CDC have been quick to act when an immunization poses a threat.
For example: "In 1998, the FDA licensed a rotavirus vaccines, and the CDC recommend it for all infants.... Studies showed rotavirus vaccines caused intussusception in about one of every 10,000 babies who got it....Within months of the vaccine's release, the CDC had discovered the problem and withdrew its recommendation--a testament to CDC diligence and post-licensure surveillance." If there was any link at all between vaccines and autism, the CDC would have caught it by now and would have acted accordingly.
More than just providing research, Offit provides the drama that surrounds vaccines. The court cases, the conspiracy theories, the death threats, the high profile individuals, the risky treatments for autistic children--all are part of the controversy. And unfortunately, an entire cottage industry of litigation lawyers, advocacy groups, and unethical doctors have taken advantage of parents who are looking for a cause for autism.
Even more unfortunate is that this industry sees autistic children as poisoned and damaged. From Kathleen Seidel, founder of Neurodiversity.com (an autism resource web site): "I get really angry at those who work parents up into a nasty emotional state. I just think it's destructive to be led down this path of endless recriminations that goes with being encouraged to think that kids are autistic because they're damaged."
In an age when we are all trying to do the best for our children, when we aren't entirely sure who to believe, I found the book and all the statistical evidence that it provides as a great reassurance that vaccines do not cause autism. Furthermore, rather than spending money and resources fighting against vaccines, we should be focusing on what does cause autism and how we can support those who are affected by it.
And as a perfect stroke of good timing, yesterday one of my students showed this heartwarming video about Jason McElwain, an autistic student.
Paul Offit will donate all royalties from sales of this book to autism research. Parent Bloggers Network provided me with my copy of this book.