Web edition: December 17, 2010
Print edition: January 1, 2011; Vol.179 #1 (p. 34)
Vaccines, once the darlings of medical science, lost their reputation for safety in the 1980s and 1990s. After a flurry of disturbing "news-you-can-use" segments, some parents refused to get their kids immunized. For vaccines, the journey back to credibility has been slow.
Physician Paul Offit provides a road map for that voyage. In a meticulously researched tour de force, Offit exposes the lack of science underlying the claims of the anti-vaccine movement. Some fears were legitimate — polio and rotavirus vaccines, he notes, posed real risks for certain people. Both were replaced by safer vaccines.
But over the past 25 years, vaccines have been accused of causing multiple sclerosis, diabetes, learning disabilities and attention disorders. Under attack were shots for whooping cough, meningitis, measles and hepatitis B — all of which were later found to be safe.
The cause célèbre was a 1998 scare in which a British physician claimed to link autism in 12 children with the measles vaccine. Several subsequent studies proved this claim false. But by then four unvaccinated children had died of measles and many more had gotten sick. "We've reached a tipping point," Offit writes. "Children are suffering and dying because their parents are more frightened by vaccines than by the diseases they prevent."
In 2009 and 2010, U.S. courts ruled against claims linking autism with vaccines. Still, many vaccine opponents aren't persuaded, and they have talk show access and Hollywood friends. To level the playing field, every doctor's office should have a copy of Offit's book, giving parents the other side of the story.
Basic Books, 2010, 288 p., $27.50.