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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear [Kindle Edition]

Seth Mnookin
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (101 customer reviews)

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Book Description

WHO DECIDES WHICH FACTS ARE TRUE?

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research, families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures,” and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.

In The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America.

The Panic Virus is a riveting and sometimes heart-breaking medical detective story that explores the limits of rational thought. It is the ultimate cautionary tale for our time.


Editorial Reviews

From Bookmarks Magazine

It might be possible to view Mnookin’s book as the final nail in the coffin for the contemporary antivaccine movement, given its recent scientific and legal setbacks. But Mnookin’s own conclusions would likely deny this; as several reviewers approvingly observed, The Panic Virus is just as much about how today’s society deals with information overload as it is about how it confronts disease. Many reviews echoed Mnookin’s condemnation of the American media for allowing false antivaccine findings to flower. Yet they also praised him for avoiding heavy-handedness and unnecessary jargon, even if the book breaks little new ground in the vaccine debate. Critics strongly recommended the book to anyone interested in medicine and public health, as well as to parents who may fear that booster shot.

From Booklist

Over the last three decades, the incidence of autism spectrum disorder, better known simply as autism, has risen dramatically in the U.S., from approximately 1 in 1,000 children to 1 in 110, arousing widespread concern among parents and psychiatrists alike. A few of the many potential possible culprits scientists have targeted are faulty genes and thimerosal, a mercury-laced preservative in vaccines. Former Newsweek senior journalist Mnookin focuses his masterful investigative skills primarily on the latter, highly controversial possibility, illustrating how the current, misguided anti-vaccine movement can be blamed almost equally on panic-driven parents, sensation-hungry media, and PR-challenged health authorities. In making his case, Mnookin covers a wide swathe of medical history, from polio outbreaks to the scare tactics of fringe British researcher Andrew Wakefield, who first forged the dubious vaccine-autism link. While Mnookin dismantles this link convincingly, his argument that multivaccine cocktails have been proven safe is ultimately less persuasive. Still, he’s an able, engaging wordsmith, and this cautionary tale about misinformed medical alarmism is thoroughly compelling. --Carl Hays

Product Details


Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
56 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to read, hard not to. March 23, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent, and (despite what some will say) relatively unbiased account of the history and consequences of anti-vaccine sentiment. As a scientist, it is fascinating, but maddening to read the accounts of entire nationwide organizations devoted to denying what real, peer-reviewed, well-designed science has shown them.
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114 of 125 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One side appeals to the heart, the other to the brain January 19, 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The title of my review comes from a quote in the book by Arthur Allen, who was describing what, to date, has been the penultimate courtroom showdown in the debate over vaccines and autism. As a mother, I could not agree more. Decisions related to our children's healthcare are agonizing and should be done carefully, using the best information available. In my opinion, this book summarizes that information as well as can be done when distilling complex science down to its most elemental truths. Even though to me it was pretty clear which side of the debate the author falls on, he nevertheless managed to present both sides of the argument and write a pretty engaging story while at it.

The Panic Virus focuses primarily on the debate over vaccines, thimerosal, and autism, but it doesn't end there. Mnookin doesn't gloss over mistakes that were made by the CDC and other government bodies in overseeing the safety of multiple vaccines. Even as someone who has a lot of respect for the contributions of vaccines to public health, I was taken aback by some of the points he made regarding the lack of rigorous safety studies in some areas related to vaccines.

However, he also presents the science that has demonstrated as conclusively as possible that vaccines do not cause autism. Those looking for the ultimate proof of a negative will not find it here, because it cannot be done using science, as Mnookin points out. He also covers some of the psychological reasons for why people are so willing to believe in junk science, and discusses Andrew Wakefield's chicanery in detail. Finally, he gives a voice to families whose children have been harmed by the anti-vaccination movement.

In fairness, one or two of the more esoteric points about the science are a tiny bit off the mark.
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63 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compassionate and factual look at vaccine fears February 8, 2011
By Biogrrl
Format:Hardcover
Reviews for this book in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Nature (the world's top scientific journal), the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, New Scientist, and many, many others have all been highly positive, and that's for a reason: Mnookin has carefully and masterfully parsed the story of the fear that has built up around vaccines and how that happened. But even as he focuses meticulously on the facts and evidence about vaccines, he is compassionate and understanding of the fear--and yes, the panic--that have driven one of the most groundless panic attacks the world has seen over a medical intervention. He does not hesitate to call out his own in this book, pointing to the news media as having played a substantial role in beating the panic drums. As anyone who's spent time in the "vaccine wars" foxholes knows, this issue remains a highly contentious one, and some people will cling to the wrong information and wrong icons no matter what the facts say. But, Mnookin's book isn't for them; it's for anyone who's seriously looking for information and context, whether that's a new parent considering vaccines for their child for the first time or an open-minded explorer trying to trace how it is that the greatest public health success in history came to be demonized. He does it without becoming shrill, with a measured and thoughtful voice throughout. Highly recommended.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A theme much bigger than its narrow-sounding topic March 16, 2011
Format:Hardcover
Quite simply, this is one of the best books I have read in years. The "topic" is the anti-vaccination movement, and how inaccurate (to put it politely) research led to thousands of parents being scared to have their children vaccinated for fear vaccines cause autism. But the context goes so much further. What Sean Mnookin points out exceptionally clearly is the way in which our politicians and media could be manipulated into giving the research of Andrew Wakefield a credibility it clearly never should have had. It is a case study on how passionate advocates, with the aid of the Internet, can take control of an issue and overwhelm well-done and proper science. It is perhaps one of the most egregious cases of this sort, but, as Mnookin points out, it is certainly not the only one. This book ought to be required reading for every high school student in the land to increase their media literacy and, we might hope, to prevent so many from getting caught up in the next great non-issue of the day.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This damn book kept me up until 4:30 a.m. May 2, 2011
Format:Hardcover
I went into this book knowing all about the lying scam artist "Doctor" Wakefield and the flawed "logic" behind anti-vaccine activists. I had read (and loved) "Denialism", and I really just expected more of the same.

I was wrong. This book places the current anti-vaccine/ anti-science plague spreading across America in a historical context in which I had never considered it. It was fascinating to read about the flawed polio trials, and how fear of vaccinations has been with us even though crude, ur-vaccinations were present in 8th Century India.

I don't want to give everything away about this book because Mr. Mnookin writes so wonderfully. To attempt to distill it into a few words here would be unfair. If you are interested in learning more about how and why people cling to anti-scientific beliefs, and how history keeps on repeating itself despite all of our advances, you absolutely must read this book.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing Chronicle of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy
The Panic Virus tells the reader with a of how emotion and rhetoric is able to trump logic and evidence. Read more
Published 4 days ago by yourhelper
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read
Great accessible discussion of the anti vax movement and how it relates to the broader problem of lack of public understanding of the scientific process, poor science journalism,... Read more
Published 1 month ago by C. Odom
5.0 out of 5 stars Factual book about vaccines that reads like an intriguing novel
Brilliantly and grippingly written, all sides of this fascinating history are presented. I have a new understanding of the issues. Mnookin is unquestionably pro-vaccine. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Joan Edelstein
1.0 out of 5 stars Genuine gold plated medical propaganda! Orwell would love it.
Firstly, the vaccine hoax:

'Vaccines did not save humanity and never will. Vaccines have never been proven truly safe ... Read more
Published 2 months ago by whale.to
4.0 out of 5 stars Good Read
One of the best reviews on the topic I have read. Well balanced, comprehensive, and concise. Well backed up with sources and history. Read more
Published 3 months ago by AZ Chicken Co
4.0 out of 5 stars Good summary of vaccine autism debate.
Very interesting read. Legal stuff drags a bit but compellingly written, good summary of the debate over whether vaccines cause autism.
Published 3 months ago by Donald A. Sharpe
5.0 out of 5 stars He did the reaserch
Mnookin does the research for the lay person and translates medical reports written by doctors into actionable documents. Read more
Published 4 months ago by Kenneth Walter
3.0 out of 5 stars Makes the same mistakes he critiques others for
This book operates from the assumption that vaccines are safe and that the anti-vaccine crowd is crazy. Then it goes on from there. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Paul Martin
1.0 out of 5 stars vaccinations/opinions
When your child dies due to a vaccination, then I will listen to your point of view on vaccinations!!! Until then save your breath
Published 6 months ago by margaret horan
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Read - Highly Recommended for Parents on the Fence
I don't tend to read books like this, but I saw it at B&N and had recently been inundated with articles on Facebook about vaccines, so I thought I'd give it a go. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Marissa
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More About the Author

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of MIT's Graduate Program of Science Writing and is the author of three books. His most recent, 2011's THE PANIC VIRUS: THE TRUE STORY BEHIND THE VACCINE-AUTISM CONTROVERSY, won the National Association of Science Writers Science in Society Book Award, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and was named one of The Wall Street Journal's Top 5 Health and Medicine books of the year. In 2006, he published the national bestseller FEEDING THE MONSTER: HOW MONEY, SMARTS AND NERVE TOOK A TEAM TO THE TOP, which chronicled the rise of the Boston Red Sox and their 2004 World Series win. Seth's first book was 2004's HARD NEWS: THE SCANDALS AT THE NEW YORK TIMES AND THEIR MEANING FOR AMERICAN MEDIA, which was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year.

Seth began his career as a rock critic for the now-defunct webzine Addicted to Noise. He's been a police reporter at The Palm Beach Post, a political reporter at Brill's Content, a music columnist at The New York Observer, and a national affairs reporter at Newsweek. Since 2005 he's been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he's reported from Iraq, written about Stephen Colbert, and delved into plagiarism accusations against Dan Brown. His work has also appeared in The New Yorker, New York, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, Spin, Slate, Salon, and other publications. He graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a degree in the History of Science and was a 2004 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, he and his wife currently live in Brookline with their two children and adopted dog.



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