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Nonfiction Do vaccines cause autism?
The Debate in Modern America By Mark A. Largent
222 pp. Johns Hopkins University Press
Reviewed by Sue Ellis
Just so you know which side of the fence he's on, Vaccine author Mark A. Largent states up front that he agreed to the thirty-five CDC-recommended vaccinations his six-year-old has had to date. But he admits that his decisions didn't come easily.
He points out that although popular belief suggests the parents who most often object to vaccinations for their kids are the lower class, less educated among us, in fact it is the best educated, most affluent of our population who worry the most about the safety of vaccinations.
One of the vaccinations currently sparking debate is the Hepatitis B, which the author's daughter had within hours of being born. The disease can only be transmitted by having sex with an infected person or by sharing needles with an infected drug addict, which leaves a lot of parents wondering why the vaccination can't wait until the child is much older, or be eliminated from the list of must-haves altogether.
During the '70s, '80s and '90s, Largent writes, American public health officials launched a campaign to educate people about the dangers of environmental toxins like lead, arsenic and mercury, something many of us remember very well. About the same time, news began to emerge that cases of autism had sharply increased. It didn't take long for the public to connect the dots between the preservative used in vaccines, thimerosal, made from mercury, and the high incidence of autism.
In 1998, the British medical journal Lancet published a study conducted by Andrew Wakefield, linking autism with the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, which is administered in one dose. Wakefield's theory suggested that the combination, with measles being the most suspect, overwhelms a child's immune system and causes gastrointestinal difficulties that could lead to neurological problems like autism.
The controversy raged for twelve years, and then in 2010 an investigation of the Wakefield study by Britain's General Medical Council concluded that Wakefield was dishonest and irresponsible. He is now barred from practicing medicine in Britain.
Here's an excerpt explaining the result of the American and British events:
Where does all this leave parents who must make a choice? A recent survey found that 24 percent of Americans believed that because vaccines might cause autism, it was safer not to have children vaccinated at all, and another 19 percent were simply unsure of whether or not vaccines could cause autism. So, a decade after the removal of thimerosal from childhood vaccines and a dozen years after the publication of Wakefield's papers and their rebuttals, nearly half of Americans either believe in or are unsure about a possible link between vaccines and autism.
He goes on to examine the newsworthy leaders in today's autism/vaccination debate. One of them, who at first glance might seem an unlikely spokesperson, is Jenny McCarthy, ex-Playboy Playmate of the Year, actress, author, and mother of an autistic son. As an official spokesperson for Talk About Curing Autism, and member of the board of Generation Rescue, her fervid beliefs have been sanctioned by Oprah Winfrey.
On the other side of the fence is Paul A. Offit, MD, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-inventor of the vaccine against rota-virus. He is also Director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Largent writes:
[Offit's] crusade is predicated on his overwhelming faith in vaccines, an autobiographical mythology in which he claims to have decided to become a doctor at age five after seeing a polio ward, and his description about his life-and-death struggle against hate-mongering anti-vaccinators.
So there are two colorful characters on opposite sides of the issue, both making headlines and keeping the controversy alive.
Vaccine also examines the future of vaccination science, such as shots that could prevent people from getting high from or addicted to illicit drugs. Already Britain is considering making such vaccinations mandatory.
Largent looks at the ethical considerations of enhancement versus therapy, topics like the ADD drug Adderall, which college students now widely use as a study aid. Or the fact that plastic surgery, developed to help burn victims, people with birth defects or other disfigurements, is now commonly used for aesthetic enhancement. Will vaccinations cross the line from disease prevention into health enhancement?
The author is an associate professor of history and director of the Science, Technology, Environment, and Public Policy Specialization at Michigan State University. Vaccine is clearly focused, easily digestible information that will help any parent who needs a better understanding of the vaccination debate.