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.
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