Marya's Reviews > The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin
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's review
Feb 22, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: adult-nonfiction

Mnookin traces the history of vaccination programs in the United States going all the way back to the small pox vaccine. According to Mnookin, even our own beloved spider preacher, Cotton Mather, had his house firebombed when he dared recommend that people vaccinate against dreaded diseases. From there, Mnookin shows how national vaccination programs have always had a number of detractors, and how between the spin of the sensationalist media and the inability of public and scientific officials to communicate effectively, those detractors have gained ground. Mnookin's real concern is the modern movement to ignore or delay vaccinations based on the perceived threat of autism. Most of the book chronicles the numerous times this hypothesis (actually more than one specific hypothesis, since it keeps changing) is tested with no positive results to show for it. He then looks at the how and why individuals (and the mainstream media) continue to echo that claim. It's easy to tell where Mnookin's sympathies lie. His depictions of autism activists struggling with their children's diagnosis is surprisingly kind, while his portraits of those who make money off said parents' hopes and fears is much less generous.
Like the mainstream media with its horror stories of children developing autism supposedly after vaccination, Mnookin relates his own horror stories of children dying or becoming deathly ill because of other children not receiving vaccinations (lack of vaccination causes previously manageable diseases to gain a foothold and children too young or immunocompromised to get vaccinations themselves are the ones to suffer). Yet, as he wants to distance himself from the spin of sensationalist media reports, Mnookin's horror stories have a sadder, violin-playing-in-the-background kind of tone. They lack the dramatic crescendos of the vaccine equals autism media reports. As a result, readers leave the book despondent that their children too will suffer severe illness or die because of catching a dread disease now coming back due to lack of vaccinations. That kind of tone of sad fear doesn't lead to letter writing campaigns like the mad-fear autism reports. On this front, Mnookin's book looses ground to the very institution (the mainstream media) he seeks to challenge.

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Quotes Marya Liked

“Don't worry if you're having a hard time following this oversimplified explanation of physics' most challenging problem. For most of us, understanding special relativity is a little like true love: We should consider ourselves lucky if we can grasp hold of it for even one fleeting moment.”
Seth Mnookin, The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

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