Looking Back on the Vaccine-Autism Controversy

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I wrote a review article about the vaccine-autism controversy in the current issue of the policy-wonk journal Democracy. (If you don't read Democracy, you should. It's an honor to publish in such a terrific place.)

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 118 measles cases were reported in 23 states and New York City between January and May of this year. That's the most in 15 years. Eighty-nine percent of these patients were unvaccinated. Outbreaks are also on the rise for other diseases that can be readily prevented through vaccination.

This is a serious public health problem. Fears about the potential links between vaccines and autism play a role in this issue. I especially hope that HuffPost readers will have a look, given the role that outlets such as the Huffington Post itself have played in this debate.

All of us in the media and the blogosphere need to be careful about spreading claims, however widely and sincerely held, that lack proper scientific support. HuffPo comes under justified criticism because it has published some dubious materials on the vaccine-autism materials. I should note that I am grateful that this site has allowed me and others to also present the other side. One of my very first postings here excoriated ABC for running an episode of the series Eli Stone, which spread dubious rumors about vaccines.

We progressives are quick to recognize the dangers of a war on science when the topic is creationism or the denial of global warming. At times we are slower to recognize similar ungrounded thinking that hits closer to home, such as when the normally sound instinct to distrust corporate power and embrace parental autonomy lapses into closed-minded rejection of the public-health enterprise.

I hope readers consider another issue, as well, in part to understand why hundreds of thousands of people are willing to part ways with the clear consensus of the medical and scientific community: Our medical care system's misguided or disrespectful treatment of many patients is another aspect of the equation. As I conclude in this piece:

We in the medical and public-health enterprises give parents too little reason to trust what we say. In failing to show a caring and competent human face, we've given too many parents reason to spurn the valuable things we have to offer, sometimes with tragic results.

I continue to believe that this is a fundamental problem.