Autism and vaccines: A failure to communicate


When it comes to vaccine safety, findings that scientists regard as proven facts haven’t been strong enough to shake public suspicion about a link between childhood immunizations and autism.


Photo by slideshow bob via Flickr

One in four Americans still believes vaccines cause autism, notes an exhaustive and fascinating analysis of the enduring controversy over vaccine risk published by PLoS Biology. An unfortunate fact is now indisputable: As parents shun vaccines, infectious diseases ranging from measles to whooping cough have mounted a comeback.

Medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman finds profound meaning in the persistence of belief in the vaccine-autism theory. To her, the PLoS article says, the problem illustrates a broader, profound erosion of trust in experts. “People think if you blindly follow experts, you’re not taking personal responsibility,” Kaufman says.

The media is part of the story, says one of the world’s foremost vaccine experts. Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, tells PLoS the vaccine myth is kept alive in part by the “journalistic mantra of ‘balance,’ ” when science supports only one side.

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Scott Hensley