Review of Seth Mnookin’s “The Panic Virus”

“The Panic Virus” is a tale of vaccines gone wrong and vaccines gone right, and how it is that autism got so tightly wrapped up with the issue of vaccine-injury. Seth Mnookin makes it easy to understand how desperate parents and misguided scientists have become so dedicated to a weak and highly improbable theory: That vaccines have ever been a cause of autism.

He is sympathetic to the plight of the parents; he does not underestimate their and their children’s suffering. I rather felt that he was too kind at times, in that you are left with the picture that only alternative theories and treatments held any real “promise” of answers and improvement (and that this is why some parents found them so attractive). It would have been wise to include at least a minimal section about the range of effective therapies that already exist and have lead to significant improvements in the lives of autistic children. He does provide very fleeting mention of ABA, speech therapy, and occupational therapy, but not in a way that informs the reader of their success and that they are a small part of a wider group of helpful therapies. Along the same vein, it would have been helpful to have more discussion about what we do know re various causes of autism, and more generally the evidence for alternative theories to vaccine-injury.

Without this extra information on “mainstream” treatments and causes, a new autism parent reading this book may yet find themselves similarly attracted towards the alternative options he covers, particularly when it seems that the only other option available looks like an almost passive acceptance of the symptoms of autism (as illustrated through the presented views of the parents who will try anything and everything). I would hope though that Mnookin successfully counters this temptation, with his careful explanation of: the dangers of not vaccinating; the errors in reasoning that lead people towards accepting unproven or disproven therapies; and of course the very real dangers (including death) that can result from taking part in such “non-traditional” options.

He doesn’t just make his case through the eyes of scientists, sociologists and judges, he also shares unforgettable stories that make the importance of this debate – and the consequences of ignoring science and reason – particularly real and emotional.

The narrative is quite good: He makes a good effort to move the story along chronologically (which is hard to do considering the number of simultaneous issues at play). He lays good ground work for what will be discussed further along in the book, and he writes in a very accessible way. All these factors make this a particularly good introductory text for people who are perhaps not already familiar with the history, science, and large number of personalities involved.

After reading “The Panic Virus”, I have a stronger appreciation of those key personalities; prior to reading this I did not have a good grasp on the history of the big charities, organisations, websites and the people behind them. Having said that, the book does particularly focus on what is of most importance to current Americans, but I can’t and don’t flaw it for that, it’s just particularly noticeable to an overseas reader. Autism parents the world over will have heard of Jenny McCarthy, Oprah Winfrey and Autism Speaks, so there is no doubt the US holds a central place in the autism-vaccine story.

The book is very recent (2011), yet already it is dated, since key players (such as the Geiers) and key stories (such as the weak and distorted recent claim that autism-vaccine-injury compensation has occurred – and been hidden – in the US) would have fit very easily and relevantly into his discussion. However, that is the problem with writing about such a current and ongoing “debate”, and is hardly a down-fall of the book; just a reflection on how important this book is right now. Indeed, the developments that have happened since his book was published, have just strengthened the arguments and conclusions that he presents in the book. He notes and discusses such developments in his blog. (While you’re there, it’s worth checking out the corrections he’s made to certain wordings and details in his book too; there’s nothing too significant or major there – certainly nothing that weakens or undercuts his arguments and conclusions – but still some notable oversights that I think you should check out if you read the book.)

On the whole, a solid book, quite well written, both well informed and informative. A good and accessible introduction to the issues and history of the vaccine-autism debates.

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4 Responses to Review of Seth Mnookin’s “The Panic Virus”

  1. Sharon says:

    I really enjoyed the book. Like you say Seth nicely sets the picture in terms of the historical issues with vaccines and how those events have had a flow on effect creating space for conspiracy theories and mistrust.

    • “Seth nicely sets the picture in terms of the historical issues with vaccines and how those events have had a flow on effect creating space for conspiracy theories and mistrust.”

      I think you just said that better than I did Sharon!

  2. KWombles says:

    Seth’s blogged about continuing events first at his own site and then at his new blog at PLOS, so that readers who follow him from his book to his blog(s) will continue to get a consistent narrative about these events from an individual who is only tangentially related to autism (he is related to Alison Singer).

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