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Why this fear of vaccines?

An insightful post by John Trimmer on the site "Ars Technica" highlights a fascinating analysis in PLoS Biology about why many have come to believe that vaccines cause autism. The article by Liza Gross lays some of the blame on the shoulders of scientists who failed to communicate effectively about research into autism. By contrast, parents who argued that vaccines caused their children's autism presented heart-wrenching stories. She notes:

Researchers might consider taking a page out of the hero's handbook by embracing the power of stories -- that is, adding a bit of drama”to show that even though scientists can't say just what causes autism or how to prevent it, the evidence tells us not to blame vaccines. As news of epidemics spreads along with newly unfettered infectious diseases, those clinging to doubt about vaccines may come to realize that several potentially deadly diseases are just a plane ride, or playground, away -- and that vaccines really do save lives.

Trimmer adds that it is not sufficient simply for scientists to communicate better; they also need to do a better job of eliminating conflicts of interest that have led, in general, for the public to view them as in the pocket of pharmaceutical interests. He says:

What the article doesn't note, but should be said, is that the medical community as a whole has hurt its credibility through various practices that allowed doctors to extract cash from pharmaceutical companies. Even though these issues are not related to vaccines, they contribute to a general sense of corruption and undermine public confidence, which spills over to vaccination programs.

It's important, however, to be aware of how vaccine experts, like Stanford's Corry Dekker, MD, and others in the public health community have worked over the last five years to be respectful of parents' concerns and respond to them. And it's also worth noting that fear of vaccines is not a new phenomena. (See my story in the current issue of Stanford Medicine for a more in-depth review.)

Indeed, the one thing missing from the PLoS article and Trimmer's piece is any discussion of the group that played a major role in fueling the autism scare: trial lawyers. The rise of a well-funded plaintiff's bar that can bankroll its own research makes the current scare very different from previous ones. As well-chronicled by Dr. Paul Offitt in his book, Autism's False Prophets, the junk science that raised doubts about vaccines was funded by these plaintiff's attorneys. And when it comes to being able to build a powerful narrative, you would be hard-pressed to do better than lawyers making the case for their clients. While some members of the media, most notably the New York Times, did not buy into these charges, many reporters were quick to assume that trial lawyers are on the side of the angels, while the medical establishment was corrupted by drug dollars. The trial lawyers are not the sole reason for why this scare took root, but it is a critical difference between today's doubts and the traction gained by similar scares in earlier eras.

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