Of Autism And Vaccines – How Do We Communicate Science Better?

30 08 2010

There are very few things that I get full-out angry about, but the allegation that vaccinations cause autism is one of those few topics that make me furious.

A BBC article today posted that a mother of a brain-damaged teenager in the UK received a £90,000 payout from the government in response to the complaint that the teenager suffered his first epileptic fit 10 days after getting the MMR (mumps, measles, and rubella) vaccine as an infant.  I am not upset that the mother received the money; in fact, I’m glad that she has some funding to help deal with what must be a difficult illness with her son.  What I am upset with is the fact that this payout is, in my opinion, inaccurately publicized by an international news source, and the money is termed as a “compensation award”.

I have nothing against the BBC reporting what happened.  Unfortunately, my concern is that those who read this article will use it as evidence that vaccinations cause brain damage, because they might think, “Why would the government pay for it otherwise?”  I’ve always believed that scientists do a poor job in translating research findings to the public, and that is our fault.  However, the media doesn’t help when they publish articles like this.  I think I go too far if I try to say that it is irresponsible journalism, because they did put in the clarifications that the “decision reflects the opinion of a tribunal on the specific facts of the case and they were clear that it should not be seen as a precedent for any other case” and that “the ruling had no relevance to the question of a link between the vaccine and autism”.  Unfortunately, none of these explanations happen in the headline or the first six sentences.  I could be wrong, but I don’t think everyone reads to the bottom of every news article, and I’m concerned that society’s diet for sensationalized news and the media’s need to keep up with our appetite means that this article was meant to attract readers who want to use this news to fuel the anti-vaccine campaign.

Maybe I’m completely wrong about this – I hope I am wrong, but with celebrities like Jenny McCarthy strongly supporting organizations that encourage parents to doubt the validity of vaccines, I’m worried that there is a large subpopulation of people who buy the bad PR of vaccinations.  The reason this topic enrages me is because if babies are not vaccinated due to this type of misinformation, not only can the babies get sick and possibly die from those diseases, but herd immunity is lost and it puts entire communities at risk.

Misinformation of this nature is completely irresponsible and it kills, and it simply breaks my heart to know that babies are possibly suffering deaths that could have been prevented, not because of their fault, not because of their caretakers’ fault, but because poor communication between researchers, the media, and the public have led to poor reporting and other irresponsible actions that put all of society at risk.

I put the greatest burden on researchers, because I feel that we, as scientists, have an obligation to properly publicize our findings in order to educate the public on the relevance of our work to their lives.  We should not exaggerate our findings, nor undervalue them.  We are the source of information, so we need to be the most responsible, because if we start off the game of telephone with the wrong words, there is no way that the game can end well for anyone.

To illustrate the power and the necessary responsibility of the researcher, one needs only look at the Wakefield paper published in the Lancet journal in 1998, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  This paper lent great support to the anti-vaccine movement, and even though there were many concerns later on about the study’s tiny sample size, Wakefield’s conflicts of interest, and allegations that he manipulated the data, the damage was done as soon as the press conference occurred.  As with the chaos theory, once the butterfly flaps its wings, it can no longer control the results of its own actions.  Thus, despite the Lancet paper being completely retracted this year and Wakefield being found guilty of professional misconduct through unethical research, the bad seeds have long been sewn, and the anti-vaccine movement continues as a beast of its own.

In a small group session at school last week, we discussed whether press releases for scientific research should be peer reviewed the way that scientific journal articles are peer reviewed.  My opinion was and is that there is an even greater need for press releases to be peer reviewed, because scientists may have some existing knowledge background from which to judge the validity of a study’s findings, but many in the general population do not, so it’s extra crucial for the scientific information to be explained to the media and the public in an accurate, concise, clear, and cohesive manner.

I guess my frustration and sensitivity with this issue lies in my inability to think of how we can go about rectifying this huge gap between research findings and public understanding of science.

Any ideas?

P.S. Please read this peer-reviewed article for a review of the hypotheses and evidence (or lack thereof) surrounding the link between vaccinations and autism.

P.P.S. Below is a video news report on how US federal judges this year found that there is clearly no scientific link between vaccinations and autism.




4 responses

30 08 2010

You are quite right. One doctor on the panel felt compassion for this boy, and thought it harmless to grant money to help him. And, again, it sets off a round of misinformation and deliberate distortion.

30 08 2010

Here’s a nice website that summaries how many people have died so far due to vaccine preventable diseases:


11 12 2010
How To Sell Science « The Pro-Psychotics

[…] policy makers could understand the findings and take them seriously), so I have blogged about this before, but the point of my post today is that I actually have some examples of how some people are […]

25 04 2011
The Power (& Responsibility) of Idea-Sharers « The Pro-Psychotics

[…] is worth mentioning, again, that vaccines have been scientifically proven over and over to not be a cause of autism.  I […]

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