This week in Wired magazine, Amy Wallace attempts to inject some science into the controversy over vaccines and autism. She also gives her readers a peek into the life of Paul Offit, a high-profile Philadelphia pediatrician who has been targeted by anti-vaccine advocates for his defense of childhood vaccination. The man receives death threats.
Wallace herself comes out strong in defense of vaccines, writing:
Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethylmercury that was used in vaccines until 2001) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems. The so-called epidemic, researchers assert, is the result of improved diagnosis, which has identified as autistic many kids who once might have been labeled mentally retarded or just plain slow. In fact, the growing body of science indicates that the autistic spectrum - which may well turn out to encompass several discrete conditions - may largely be genetic in origin.
Unsurprisingly, the article has touched off a firestorm of debate in the online comments section. Instead of simply letting the anonymous arguments rage, however, Wired is experimenting: They've set up a page where users can post questions about the article's sources. Wired's writers and editors will then answer the questions over a period of several weeks. It's an interesting (and interactive) idea, and I'll be watching to see whether it cuts down on the sort of misinformation that often rules online comments.
For more on vaccines and autism, see "Why this fear of vaccines?" and the Spring 2009 issue of Stanford Medicine.
Stephanie Pappas is a guest blogger based in Houston, Texas. She was formerly an intern for the Stanford School of Medicine Office of Communication and Public Affairs.