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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear Hardcover – January 11, 2011
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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
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Overall this book is very informative and even humorous at times. Mnookin presents both sides of the vaccination spectrum- those who are completely opposed and those who wholeheartedly support. He does a great job of explaining how certain groups of individuals could ignore current scientific data on vaccines in favor of listening to fringe doctors who appeal to their emotions. Autism research is discussed in great detail and there are several moving stories and families affected first hand by autism.
I found Panic Virus to be very timely considering the news coverage given to relentless anti-vaccine groups in the U.S. For someone like myself who finds it difficult to deny scientific evidence, the book gave me insight into the tactics of anti-vaccine groups. I can now see how a parent desperately searching for answers as to how their child became suddenly autistic.
Mnookin (I think it's pronounced 'nook-in') starts by going back in history to one of the most devastating of infectious diseases: small pox. He then goes on to discuss the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the polio scare of the 1940s and 1950s and the race to develop a vaccine. Then there is the swine flu scare of 1976. What's most interesting about the history of immunization is that with each great breakthrough there is an accompanying wave of anti-immunization panic despite the mountains of evidence regarding the overall safety and efficacy of vaccines.
In the 1980s and 1990s with a rise in autism many parents were desperate for answers as to why their children were suffering from such debilitating illness. Some physicians theorized that the battery of vaccines that children receive in their first two years might be responsible and the modern-day anti-vaccine industry was born.
While Mnookin is far from unsympathetic to the suffering of parents and children with developmental and autism spectrum disorders, he does not hide the fact that he believes the harm of not vaccinating children (the loss of 'herd immunity') far outweighs the alleged risks. Mnookin also tries to explain in psychological and sociological terms the phenomenon for the attempt to link vaccines to the rise in developmental and autism spectrum disorders. He is unable to hide his contempt for the medical professionals who help to stoke the fears of parents, especially British doctor Andrew Wakefield. He also heaps plenty of scorn on Jennie McCarthy who uses her celebrity despite any training or expertise whatsoever to advance theories with no scientific basis whatsoever.