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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

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A riveting medical detective story that explores the limits of rational thought

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist with a history of self-promotion, published a paper with a shocking allegation: the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine might cause autism. The media seized hold of the story and, in the process, helped to launch one of the most devastating health scares ever. In the years to come Wakefield would be revealed as a profiteer in league with class-action lawyers, and he would eventually lose his medical license. Meanwhile, one study after another failed to find any link between childhood vaccines and autism.

Yet the myth that vaccines somehow cause developmental disorders lives on. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, it has been popularized by media personalities such as Oprah Winfrey and Jenny McCarthy and legitimized by journalists who claim that they are just being fair to “both sides” of an issue about which there is little debate. Meanwhile, millions of dollars have been diverted from potential breakthroughs in autism research; families have spent their savings on ineffective “miracle cures"; and declining vaccination rates have led to outbreaks of deadly illnesses like Hib, measles, and whooping cough. Most tragic of all is the increasing number of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases.

In The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin draws on interviews with parents, public-health advocates, scientists, and anti-vaccine activists to tackle a fundamental question: How do we decide what the truth is? The fascinating answer helps explain everything from the persistence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 to the appeal of talk-show hosts who demand that President Obama “prove” he was born in America. The Panic Virus is the ultimate cautionary tale for our time.

448 pages, Hardcover

First published January 25, 2011

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About the author

Seth Mnookin

8 books39 followers
Since 2005, Seth has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, where he’s written about the American media presence in Iraq, Bloomberg News, and Stephen Colbert. In 2002 and 2003, he was a senior writer at Newsweek, where he wrote the media column “Raw Copy” and also covered politics and popular culture.

He graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a degree in History and Science, and was a 2004 Joan Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A native of Newton, Massachusetts, he and his wife currently live in Cambridge with their seven-year-old dog, their two-year-old son, and their infant daughter.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 606 reviews
Profile Image for edh.
176 reviews8 followers
April 28, 2011
Mnookin's The Panic Virus is an amazing investigation into the culture of vaccinations, and the deadly effects of those too selfish and shortsighted to see how their choices affect others. Stories of young infants too young to yet receive vaccinations die because of young carriers whose parents have decided to "opt out," citing herd immunity as a justification for letting their offspring go unvaccinated. Cases such as this are only growing as more and more families are gripped by the powerful fear that somehow their children will "catch" autism or other afflictions due to vaccines. Mnookin cites one parent: "...[B]ecause I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines."

It's not just celebrities like Jenny McCarthy who stoke the fears of parents -- Bizarre tales of amateur so-called scientists who experiment in their basements and claim that vaccines cause autism are equally to blame. Cognitive dissonance sets in among those who don't know what "study" to believe, who hear horror stories and urban myths of children becoming unresponsive vegetables immediately following their vaccinations. Perhaps the most reprehensible villains of Mnookin's narrative are the ones taking advantage of "Big Autism," who hawk supposed cures, therapies, diets, and other treatments to desperate parents and have turned vaccination into a cultural debate that would be unrecognizable to those who lived through the polio epidemic. Even the Wakefield paper, which caused the physician in question to lose his license in the UK, was rooted in Dr. Wakefield's pecuniary interests: he was being paid to examine kids "as part of a lawsuit that was being prepared against drug manufacturers." He had also filed his own patent for a vaccine that would compete with the existing MMR. Yeah, no bias there.

It's a well-written book that looks critically at the massive vaccine spin machine, and pulls at the heart with touching stories of those who have been caught in the culture war over vaccination. Well worth the read... and if I ever have a kid, I'll remember little baby Danielle, who died because another family decided vaccines were "too dangerous" for their children, and who helped destroy the herd immunity that would have kept her alive to receive her own vaccines.
Profile Image for Christina Dudley.
Author 16 books117 followers
September 11, 2014
If this review is incoherent, it's because I stayed up way too late finishing this book...

Seth Mnookin chronicles the history of the feared vaccine-autism connection. Until I read The Panic Virus, I wasn't positive which side the data finally came down on, but now I know. My main take-aways:

1. Only three vaccines ever did contain thimerosal (ethylmercury) as a preservative. Ethylmercury is not the same thing as the decidedly harmful methylmercury. Thimerosal has been phased out of all vaccines since 2001, and yet autism diagnoses continue to rise.

2. The man who originally raised the MMR-vaccine-causes-autism specter published in The Lancet, but his work failed to be reproducible by any scientific or medical peers and was since discredited. When he produced his study, he himself had patented an oral, measles-only vaccine--the demand for which would surge if the standard MMR combination vaccine was discredited.

3. Despite follow-on studies around the world failing to support any vaccine-autism link, the press and show biz have made it a cause celebre, and vaccine rates have dropped, leading to a rise in cases of preventable infectious disease. (In my own neighborhood, we received two messages from the schools about a whooping cough--pertussis--outbreak.)

4. When vaccination rates drop below 90-95%, the population as a whole loses its "herd immunity." Not only are the deliberately unvaccinated children at risk, but the babies not yet old enough to receive the vaccinations suffer the greatest danger of exposure and make up the highest number of deaths among the infected.

The stories of desperate parents struggling with severely autistic children were heartbreaking. I completely understand the desire for an explanation and for hope of treatment, but after reading this book I hope more energy and funding will go toward pursuing other possible causes and culprits. What on earth does cause the frequent GI issues and allergies that accompany autism??? Are there any peer-reviewed scientific studies supporting the efficacy of strict diets and expensive nutritional supplements peddled to families with autistic children, or only anecdotal evidence?

Mnookin's discussion of the human tendency to fall victim to cognitive biases and to find comfort in conspiracy theories made me question my own tendencies in food writing to consider Big Ag as some kind of evil empire out to kill everyone with pesticides and genetically-modified seeds. Our bodies are complicated things. I imagine all the crap we're eating doesn't help matters, but no one really knows yet what all the factors are. (Would Mnookin consider tackling The Panic Cheeseburger as his next book?)

I highly, highly recommend this book. Passing it to my husband next and hope to convince my book club to read it when it's out in paperback.
Profile Image for Pumpkinbear.
101 reviews13 followers
April 9, 2011
If this book had been written seven years ago, it would have saved me seven years' worth of stress as a parent. I have always kept my children up to date with their immnunizations, but I have done so knowing that it was the best practice for society as a whole, but fearing that autism link in regards to my own babies. Until this year I had always declined to have my children immunized against the flu, again because of worries about thimerosol and autism. I did extensive research into the issue, but it was always in the form of articles that reinterpreted the scientific literature for a popular audience. Apparently, that last one was my big mistake, because I never thought not to trust the same story told by so many different publications.

After reading this book, I feel so much better about my decision to vaccinate. I could both kiss Seth Mnookin and hit Andrew Wakefield with a stick. Mnookin interpreted the scientific literature, explained the flaws in the anti-vaccine stance, and convinced me of the merits of his argument. I only wonder why his was the first voice I have ever heard who has done exactly that. My children's pediatrician told me that I was perfectly justified in avoiding the flu vaccine. My favorite parenting magazine, whose parenting philosophy I otherwise agreed with wholly, was devoutly anti-vaccine. A doctor aquaintance is fervently pro-vaccine, but implied that anti-vaccine parents were bad people.

The beauty of Mnookin's argument is that he lays the blame where it belongs--on journalists, talk show hosts, and people who, knowing that they have the country's ear, have a responsibility in what they say. Mnookin won me over utterly when he convinced me that he understood that most anti-vaccine parents are not bad people--they're just parents, terrified about their children's well-being. With that characterization, I can understand where they're coming from without feeling like I need to agree with them.
Profile Image for Becky.
1,319 reviews1,612 followers
March 22, 2015
This book was fascinating. I grabbed this purely because of the title, and I'm glad that I did, because this book was so worth the Audible credit I used for it. If nothing else, then this book should shine a light on the "vaccines cause autism" debate, and some of the... less than ethical means that have been used to support that claim. I'm not a scientist or a vaccine or autism expert (and I don't even play one on TV), and I definitely support parents researching what's best for their child - but what this book shows clearly is that "research" that comes from anecdotal evidence or disreputable sources can cause far more harm than good.

We take for granted that vaccines have all but eliminated many diseases that our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents had to worry about. Polio, Smallpox, Typhoid, Whooping Cough, etc. We don't have to worry about these because we were vaccinated against them. Now, the risk of catching these kinds of diseases is rare, so it's not as urgent a concern as many claim the potential side-effects of the vaccine itself are - the main one being that it causes autism. But the more people choose to not vaccinate their kids to avoid this perceived risk, the more the actual risk of these previously rare diseases cropping up grows. And when that happens, it can affect many, many people.

I'm no expert, and honestly, I don't think it's unreasonable to have questions about vaccines and their side-effects. But this book laid out a plethora of information about the debate that I found hard to argue, including urban legends and anecdotal 'evidence' being touted as truth and fact without any real scientific evidence to back it up, irresponsible media coverage that supports the human interest story over the unbiased one, irresponsible and unethical people cashing in on fear & desperation to sell "miracle cures", and fanatic backers of a good cause siphoning credibility away from it like a black hole, as well as several examples of the lengths that science went to to try to prove there was no causal link between vaccines and autism. There's a lot packed into this book, and I wouldn't say that it was unbiased, but I think that it represented its position pretty fairly, and it was definitely very interesting reading.

If nothing else, this book made me more aware of where information is coming from (one comment that struck me was that repetition can start to sound like a chorus - if you hear it enough, it sticks in your head and takes on a sheen of truth because it's been repeated so often.), and made me think of the wider repercussions of the decision to not vaccinate children, regardless of the reason. Not vaccinating isn't a guaranteed preventative measure against autism, and can actually cause children to catch other life-threatening diseases they would otherwise have been safe from. Nothing in this world is risk-free, and there's no way that anyone can guarantee that nothing bad will happen. You can't prove a negative and you can't predict the future, so you just have to make the best decision you can with the credible and verifiable information available.

And then cross your fingers.
Profile Image for Erin.
5 reviews
September 21, 2011
As a parent who has always grown very nervous around the time of vaccinations--to the point where I chose to not give most of them to my second child--this book felt like a breath of fresh air. Mnookin demonstrated with an extremely readable technique the history of vaccine skepticism in this country, as well as the events that led to the current, ongoing doubts many parents still have about the vaccination schedule set forth by the CDC. He spares no one, equally skewering the Ford Administration for their response to the 1976 Swine Flu "outbreak", the CDC for how they dealt with the thimerosal debate, all the way to every vaccine proponent's favorite target: Jenny McCarthy. And many, many others in between.

What I found most fascinating was his detailed insight into how the panic over mercury in vaccines started. I've read many times about the interest taken by Dan Burton, the Congressman from Indiana who is often looked at as a hero by parents whose children they feel have been injured by vaccines, because of his insistence on investigating whether thimerosal causes Autism. As the grandfather of an autistic child, his interest in its cause is certainly understandable. However, his insistence on thimerosal being the causative agent is put into question a bit when Mnookin points out that Burton is one of the leading believers in the theory that Vince Foster was killed by someone inside the Clinton Administration, that he insisted the House's barber cut his hair with his own set of scissors and that he refuses to eat soup in public for fear of AIDS transmission. He clearly was willing to embrace the connection between Autism and vaccines because he already had a healthy dose of paranoia over what government health officials were saying.

Another interesting group covered is the Academy of American Surgeons and Physicians, a legitimate sounding organization that has also published their own studies making a connection between Autism and vaccines. Except the studies were conducted by one man in his basement. And for all the legitimacy that their title would imply, the group is actually a right wing fringe group, still making proclamations declaring a connection between breast cancer and abortion and asserting that Obama's popularity that led to his election was due to his use of hypnosis on those more susceptible to it (educated people and non-Christians).

I give the book four stars for three reasons:

1. During the course of the book, Mnookin never mentions, nor do any of the public health officials he quotes, the role of breastfeeding and the immune boost it provides. I felt that in a discussion about public health and vaccine skepticism, this is a necessary component. I know many parents who have opted to limit vaccines and without fail, all of them breastfeed and many do so for longer than the AAP recommends. For most of us, our skepticism about vaccines doesn't neatly fall under the vaccines cause Autism meme; rather, research has indicated that for a breastfed baby/child, some of the vaccines that are required may be unnecessary. Hib bacteria, for instance, was not found to be present in the throats of exclusively breastfed or mixed fed (formula and breast milk) babies in a Swedish study. Since it was the disappearance of Hib bacteria with the advent of the vaccine that caused the Pneumococcal bacteria to flourish, parents of breastfed children are also relatively reluctant to give that one. Rotavirus would be another example. The vaccine was created after Paul Offitt saw an influx of babies die of dehydration, which is certainly admirable. But study after study has shown that breastfed babies do much better if they are infected with Rotavirus (which was the case for 95%+ of the population before the vaccine came out) because of the swift rate with which nutrients from breast milk are absorbed, as well as the fact that most infants who breastfeed only want the comfort of the breast when they're ill. I'm not listing these as reasons not to give a child the vaccine, just as reasons for which parents may question whether the vaccine is necessary for their particular child.

2. Mnookin criticizes Autism advocacy organizations, specifically those that seek to establish a link between vaccines and Autism, for being heavy on anecdotal stories that appeal to emotion. Yet, the book is interspersed with the same such stories, only this time they're about children who suffered or died from vaccine preventable diseases. One has to of course then rely on the same self-reporting over which Mnookin is critical. As he stresses when referencing parents of Autistic children: it's not that I doubt their stories or memories, it's just that it's hard to know whether the whole story is being reported. Not to harp on the breastfeeding angle, but when a major study comes out asserting that nearly 1000 deaths per year are directly caused by *not* breastfeeding, it felt like perhaps the story of these children (as well as the stories of the Autistic children) would be more complete if they included a reference to infant feeding practices.

3. Mnookin touches on the fact that red flags were raised about thimerosal in the beginning because of a study that suggested its use as a preservative in vaccines might have been causing higher rates of ADD and ADHD as the number of vaccines children received went up over the years. He also touches on the idea that inundating a child's immune system with a multitude of viruses could then cause auto-immune disorders in the future. While he provides heavy documentation that there is no link between Autism and vaccines, he does not provide the same sort of attention to this theory. Perhaps it is a non-starter. As with Autism, I imagine it'd be impossible to measure whether an auto-immune disorder was triggered by an immune response from years ago versus a build-up of exposure to other things that scientists have pointed to, such as pollutants and inordinate amounts of stress. Still, it'd at least be interesting to read about what scientists have been doing, if anything, to address this particular concern.

All in all, though, this was a very compelling read.
Profile Image for Steve.
962 reviews97 followers
October 3, 2016
4 solid stars.

While no one in my family has autism, I have several friends whose kids have been diagnosed with various levels of autism, some with mild, functioning autism, and others with autism so severe, the children will require care for their entire lives. The interesting part of that fact is that not a single one of parents has ever said that their child's autism was caused by a vaccine. Instead of trying to find a scapegoat for their difficult situation, they are focused on trying to live their lives and trying to raise their children to be able to live as a productive member of society. Good perspective, that.

I'm on the side of vaccines, too, and I'm not interested AT ALL into getting into a debate on that issue, so don't even try. I WILL delete your comments, report you, and block you. This is a book review on a book review site. If you want to argue or debate, go to one of the dozens of sites that you can Google on your own.

This was a very fascinating book to me, for several reasons.

First, how data is analyzed. I'm a data analyst by trade, and I cringed every time Andrew Wakefield's name and work were mentioned. It's simply amazing that he's been allowed to present his "research" for so long, especially with scientists and experts knowing his work is so faulty, it is beyond usable. The author delves deeply into scientific method, the different strategies of testing a sample population, and all sorts of works that scientists over the past couple centuries have testing their theories. Aside from the topic, it was interesting to read how these theories have changed over time, and how each of these theories have been tested.

That leads to the second point: how the results of that data is presented. It's great that scientists and mathematicians can use all sorts of data to tell us all sort of things about ourselves, about the population, about the world around us. But, and this is important to note, the results are NEVER EVER 100% perfect. In conducting this type of research, they are dealing with statistics. It is impossible to test an entire population, so statisticians determine an acceptable sized segment, and extrapolate expected results. This is often very confusing to someone not experienced with statistics, and that confusion and inexperience is exploited by those presenting the results: the media (who believes anything they have to say anyway?) and those who have something to gain from a specific outcome (lawyers, politicians, CEOs, and especially Andrew Wakefield).

Another "how" in the way data is presented relies almost solely on emotion, which is how the media works. It's no longer required for a news reporter to actually do some research into a topic such as a potential link between vaccines and autism. All the editors and producers want are stories that pull at the heartstrings, because emotional stories will keep people watching and reading (good for advertising and good for keeping $$ rolling in).

This is a very "readable" book. The author takes some pretty deep concepts in science, statistics, and history, and makes it understandable for just about anyone. He moves around history, both recent and not-so-recent, making it an interesting read from that perspective. He ties in stories from people impacted by autism and why they are fighting against the perceived powers in control. And it is heart-wrenching, there's no doubt about that. I wouldn't wish the diagnosis of autism on any family; it's extremely difficult to face, much less get through.

I don't expect people on the side of "anti-vaccine" would read this book; it goes directly against their position, undermining their arguments (even in the face of hard facts). I do hope that those that have questions would read this one, though. The author looks at both sides of the issue of vaccinations/autism, and presents a solid argument for the continuation of vaccinations. This is much more than a personal issue, as it is presented by the "anti-vaccine" side; it has a huge, wide-ranging impact on the health of society as a whole.
Profile Image for Josephine.
137 reviews17 followers
February 18, 2011
While Seth Mnookin’s The Panic Virus is about the autism/vaccine controversy, I’d argue that it’s also partly about irresponsible journalism perpetuated by the likes of Oprah and any number of reporters who fail to do the proper research and wind up writing misleading articles which might prove to be compelling reading, but which also misinform.

See — that’s what I don’t get.

I lost respect for Oprah a long time ago because she’s the sort of public figure who doesn’t own up to her responsibility to the public when she showcases people like Jenny McCarthy (one of the many celebrity activists out there) on her show.

There is a difference, as Mnookin points out, between “critical thinking and getting swept up in a wave of self-righteous hysteria.” But, as I wrote earlier in this post, it just feels like society is moving further and further away from critical thinking in this day and age where a lot of seem to think that information — and I’m not saying all of it is correct information — is at our finger tips.

This self-righteous hysteria doesn’t just apply to the vaccine/autism debate — it also applies to global warming, politics, everything…and that’s a really sad commentary on the state of the world today.

I never expected to be as engrossed in reading this book as I was — it’s a definite must-read.
Profile Image for Carol.
338 reviews14 followers
March 2, 2011
I worry that books like this -- Mnookin's account of how well-educated parents in both the U.S. and England have decided in recent years not to vaccinate their children due to fears that vaccines cause autism -- simply preach to the choir. If you really believe that a vaccination can harm your child, you probably won't read this book. And if a few of Mnookin's editorial comments strike me, a staunchly pro-vaccine adherent, as a bit much, then those who think differently would likely react even more to them. I almost think Mnookin should have focused less on the details of stories of individual children who either suffered from autism or from a disease we thought long eradicated and more on the historical perspective: tell us more about how the diseases that we now don't have to worry about used to kill millions of people in gruesome ways. Hopefully, this will convince everyone that vaccinations are a public health necessity, not a parental choice.
Profile Image for Kimberly.
946 reviews3 followers
August 17, 2011
I wouldn't ordinarily pick up a book like this to read, but I became involved in a vaccine debate with my friend. I read The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child and recommended that she read it, but her child's pediatrician told her to shred it and read this instead. That, of course, piqued my interest so I decided to check out the 'opposition' myself. Let me briefly outline my vaccine beliefs: I don't believe they cause autism per se, I believe in fully vaccinating children (that means having them get ALL the vaccines), BUT I do believe in spreading out the shots so children aren't getting so many all at once (some of them contain a lot of chemicals and regardless of whether they could trigger a neurological or developmental problem I don't think it's healthy to bombard a body with all of that all at once). Back to the book, Mnookin basically presents his research on the vaccine debate to debunk the theory that vaccines are related to autism. He covers from the history of vaccinations to the "mommy wisdom" of Jenny McCarthy and everything in between.

Mnookin is well-written and clearly educated and he presents himself well. His basic stance is that no scientific studies have proven there is a link between vaccines and autism and any individual or societal beliefs otherwise are due to logical fallacies and vaccine related confusion caused by the popular media. Overall, I can't dispute the facts that Mnookin presents, but I did have problems with some of what he writes. For instance, he attacks Dr. Sears and gives an example of one of his patients who brought the measles virus to the US. I'm sorry but last I checked a doctor isn't responsible for a patient's decision, including one not to vaccinate a child even if that does support Mnookin's negative opinion of Dr. Sears. Apparently, the measles outbreak was entirely Sears' fault. I found it ironic that Mnookin talks about how we don't even know what polio is as a society anymore since vaccinations have basically eradicated it, which is the exact same thing that Sears says in The Vaccine Book. Mnookin also talks about an outbreak of pertussis caused by a lack of vaccinated individuals in the region, but he fails to acknowledge that pertussis isn't strictly a childhood illness and that it's equally important for adults to be vaccinated to prevent the spread of the disease (I know first hand how important vaccinating against pertussis is as the child of a preemie who is particularly susceptible to the illness). In the book, Mnookin talks about how shaky case studies are to use in studies (which is true), but he presents case study after case study throughout his book as examples of the tragedies that have occurred when children have caught vaccine preventable diseases. And, to make it more dramatic, he uses case studies where the child dies or falls ill right when they were due for the vaccine that would have prevented them from catching the disease. Despite his efforts, the book certainly has a biased tone. I don't know if all of the autism advocates are as illogical and backwards as the ones he uses examples of, but I doubt it. I wish there were some more moderate people included rather than just the fanatics. Finally, and this is a small gripe, he lumps new carpet and flame retardant in children's clothes with the safety of vaccines. It's a leap. There are issues with both of the former and he shouldn't label them as innocuous unless he wants to back it up with research.

So, after reading both The Vaccine Book and The Panic Virus my opinion on vaccines remains unchanged. I don't see how it can possibly be dangerous to spread out vaccines (weeks or months) and if there is a possibility that it makes it easier on the child then I'm all for it. My daughter has never had a reaction, including a fever, to any vaccines and I personally feel it is due in part to not getting 5 vaccines all at once. I have to give kudos to Mnookin for his research and his well-written text, but I wish he didn't make so many generalizations.

This is a difficult book for me to rate. At first I thought 3 stars would be appropriate because Mnookin has put together a well-written, comprehensive book, but I don't think I can quite say that I 'like' the book. It falls somewhere between 2 and 3 stars for me, but I'm rating it 2.
Profile Image for Kaethe.
6,361 reviews454 followers
March 15, 2019
Slow going for me because of the rage. The world is a complex place: I understand why people find simple answers appealing, I just wish they would stop. If someone can reduce any issue of modern life into a single terse sentence then they're wrong. It's never that easy. Of course it's not that easy. If there were easy solutions then these things wouldn't be problems, would they? I am an ardent admirer of the tremendous gains in human life-expectancy that have accrued from vaccination, and I am a big fan of public health efforts and modern science. The value of mass vaccination efforts is pretty firmly established, and hell, yes, I had my children vaccinated on schedule. So yesh, vaccine denialists get on my last nerve. But even worse to my mind are the people who know that vaccines save lives and decrease disabilities, but are perfectly willing to grant people an exemption for no good reason. (There are, of course, numerous valid reasons for exemptions ranging from comorbidities through lack of access. I point this out specifically for two reasons 1. Nothing is simple 2. I know that my knowledge is never better than partial, and there is no way I can assess the specific circumstances of anyone, let alone everyone of 7.5 billion people)
There is risk to vaccination, of course, because there is risk in everything we do or fail to do. But seriously, the doctor who tells parents to do their own research on the topic and come to their own decisions, I just cannot understand. How do you justify that kind of advice? What is the point of your education and experience if you can't offer more than that? What is the point of science reporters who give exactly as much weight to an idea with tons of research replicated everywhere over a hundred years on millions of people and one guy who says he found something on a handful of subjects that no one can replicate?
Nothing is simple in real life. I hate that.

Library copy
Profile Image for Nancy.
1,202 reviews44 followers
July 20, 2011
This is an interesting book about an important topic. Mnookin has a way with analogies that makes a confusing topic very understandable.

The media has distorted the science of vaccines with its focus on highly emotional interviews with parents who believe their child's disability was caused by a vaccine. They have not covered disability and death from the illnesses that vaccines prevent.

Parents with an autistic child make good TV. It is an emotionally powerful story and we want to believe there is an easy answer to the question of why this child is so damaged.

Do we need large epidemics to get parents to vaccinate their children? Any parent considering not vaccinating their children should read this book before making a decision. Skipping vaccination is not "erring on the safe side." It is playing Russian roulette with your child.

Profile Image for Mallory.
496 reviews43 followers
January 19, 2011
The biggest lesson I took away from this was "Never underestimate the power of human stupidity." It's astonishing, how many people are so thoroughly unscientific in their thinking, and how that can lead to tragedy. Yes, it's important to question the "conventional wisdom", but sometimes "conventional wisdom" is conventional for a reason.

Besides being well-informed, this book is well-written, with a great deal of explication for people who don't necessarily have a background in science. I highly recommend this fascinating book on a very important topic.
Profile Image for Jeff Raymond.
3,092 reviews179 followers
March 1, 2011
No book has made me quite as angry as this book has.

I've become familiar enough with the anti-vaccination movement over the years. It piqued my interest due to my natural skepticism, but the reality was clear really early on - there was nothing to support the claims that vaccines and autism are linked in any way. That hasn't stopped folks like Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, "journalist" David Kirby of the Huffington Post, Robert Kennedy Jr (who was apparently shortlisted for a post in the Obama administration for a time), etc, from pushing this myth anyway. A myth that actively kills kids.

The book is a history of the myth. How it got there, other vaccine panics of the past that lead us to this unfortunate point, and the unfortunate results of many people subscribing to the lunacy. I can't imagine not feeling a seething rage while reading much of this book, to be honest. The worst part, truly, is seeing how the anti-vaccination people have so dishonestly distorted the factual record of the medical research, even when the reports directly refute them, in order to make their points. Nothing short of enraging.

The book has a few minor faults, but nothing that overcomes the meticulous research involved and just the brutal, no-nonsense takedown of the whole anti-vax movement. If you're having kids, if you're planning on having kids, if you're still confused about what's real and what's not in the discussion, read this. If you care at all, read this. An absolutely stunning must-read.
Profile Image for Dagmara.
48 reviews5 followers
January 6, 2021
Bardzo żałuję, że osoby które najbardziej powinny przeczytać tą książkę pewnie nigdy tego nie zrobią.
Niemniej jednak, do rzeczy. Autor w sposób bardzo przejrzysty i uporządkowany przedstawia historię całej "afery" (a konkretnie kilku aferek), które doprowadziły do zakwestionowania potrzeby szczepienia przeciwko niektórym chorobom, a w niektórych przypadkach, które w ogóle nawołują do całkowitej dowolności jeśli chodzi o kalendarz szczepień. Większość książki opisuje rodzenie się ruchu antyszczepionkowego, przyczyny jego rozkwitu i precyzuje błędy jakie zostały popełnione przez drugą stronę, a które w pewnie sposób pozwoliły na przeniknięcie haseł anty do mainstreamu.
Bardzo zgrabnie przedstawione są mechanizmy kształtowania się opinii publicznej i tego jak łatwo grać na ludzkich emocjach i strachu, co jest dla mnie szczególnie znamienne biorąc pod uwagę rok 2020 i ciągle jeszcze trwające zmagania z covidem. Podobieństwo nieporadności ludzi u władzy powoduje u mnie dreszcze niepokoju i irytację. Niestety błędy przeszłości najwyraźniej niczego nas nie nauczyły.
A szkoda. Bo w finalnym rozliczeniu zawsze cierpią ci najbiedniejsi i najsłabsi.
Profile Image for Colin Bendell.
Author 2 books6 followers
June 26, 2011
A fascinating history of vaccines and the generations of opposition to vaccines because of religious conviction and ignorance. People such as Andrew Wakefield, Jenny Mccarthy and Opra are the recent villains in this story using greed, mis-information, bad science and emotive plees to convince well educated and well meaning parents to not vaccinate their children. As a result society's herd immunity has been compromised for viruses that were eliminated decades ago. The deaths of hundreds of children caused by the of recent outbreaks in whooping cough, measles and other forgotten child hood illnesses is the blood on Wakefield's, McCarthy's and Opra's hands.

One very interesting point he raises is the role of the internet to allow silos of mis-information to perpetuate. Where once these silos were forced to reconcile their thoughts with the challenges from the majority, now the fringe groups can find more like-minded across the globe and more easily ignore the challenges to their ideas. The anti-vaccination crowd continues to grow in spite of the building evidence that contradicts each assertion they put forward. MMR and mercury don't cause autism yet the anti-vaccination community still fervently believes that big pharma is somehow to blaim and not genetics.
Profile Image for Rachael Hope.
96 reviews37 followers
September 26, 2011
Autism has become a fairly hot topic in the past few years, and I've been interested in the subject for quite a while. I've read a couple of books previously about the subject, including Jenny McCarthy's book "Louder than Words." Despite McCarthy's 'mother's instinct' and conviction that vaccines caused her son's autism, and that she was able to cure him through diet and therapy, I finished the book believing neither. I ran across "The Panic Virus" by Seth Mnookin at the library when I was looking for a new audio book to read, and it sounded right up my alley.

It's hard to even know where to begin. This book is a wonderfully well executed look into the world of vaccines and the medical crisis of misinformation spread about the 'connection' between autism and the MMR vaccine. As a young married man planning to have children, Mnookin heard many stories about vaccines from his friends - a lot of them had concerns about the safety of vaccines for their children. He decided to explore the topic for himself and seek out the facts, and "The Panic Virus" was born.

Mnookin starts the book by speaking about vaccines in general, all the way back to the first inoculations created against Smallpox. Vaccines have always had some controversy surrounding them, from the first time someone decided to score their skin and rub infected pus on it to inoculate themselves to the first polio vaccines and bad batches that paralyzed children after they were administered. It's not a surprise that a controversy would come up regarding the MMR vaccine, mercury, the use of thimerosal and whether it's linked to autism.

Unfortunately, in this case, the medical crisis that follows the controversy is one of epic proportions. There are schools in California where 40-60% of the children are not being vaccinated. Dozens and dozens of children who could be hospitalized and even killed by diseases which are wholly preventable. This is absolutely a health crisis. The panic virus that Mnookin is referring to is misinformation itself, which spreads like wildfire with the help of the modern day media.

Andrew Wakefield is one of the most major players in this story. The doctor who first published a study claiming that autism and digestive problems were a direct result of receiving the MMR vaccine has since been stripped of his medical license. A formal retraction of the article has been issued by the journal in which it was published, and it's been revealed that Wakefield had a financial stake in proving the link. Before publishing his study, Wakefield filed a patent for an alternate measles vaccine, so if MMR stopped being used, he stood to make a good deal of money.

Wakefield was just the first in a long string of people spreading information with no basis in fact through the media. Having an autistic child is not easy. Some parents are dealing with children who are non-verbal, can never be toilet trained, are unable to show emotion, are violent or profoundly unable to take care of themselves. It is absolutely a difficult situation, and I can see how these parents would WANT to reach out and grab hold when someone is giving them an explanation for WHY this happened to their child. In my mind, that's what makes the behavior of those perpetuating this idea even more reprehensible and irresponsible. They are taking advantage of parents emotions and questions about a condition whose causes are still largely unknown, and they're doing it to make a name for themselves.

Mnookin discuses Wakefield in depth, as well as David Kirby, author of the book "Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic." Kirby added (and continues to add) a lot of fuel to the fire of parents who are blaming vaccines and the government's vaccine program for their children's autism. Despite the lack of evidence of any link, Wakefield, Kirby, and Jenny McCarthy all have huge followings in the autism community, and continue to attend events, give talks, and provide information to parents all over the world. To me, this is especially surprising the case of Wakefield, who has been exposed as an unethical doctor who basically fixed his research, was nonobjective and stood to gain financially from his own findings. His research showed contaminated samples, and how much of a surprise can that be from someone who took his control samples by drawing blood from the guests at his own child's birthday party? Yet he now lives in the United States, and continues to book speaking engagements and spread his ideas.

Though at least half of the book is devoted to looking at vaccines as they relate to autism, Mnookin also explores vaccines in general. He gives great background information about studies regarding mercury poisoning and mercury content in vaccines, as well as some history of other public health scares and people mistrusting the government (for example the debate over fluoridation of the water supply). Mnookin explores the reasons why people are able to believe in ideas that have no basis in fact, especially on emotionally charged issues, and how we decide how much proof is enough. On of the major points made here is that you cannot prove a negative, that those like David Kirby who ask for the government to prove all vaccines are 100% safe for every single person are asking for the impossible.

Study after study has failed to find any link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The British and American court systems have both conducted in depth, several year long investigations and found no causal relationship. The doctor who most heavily promoted the idea has been stripped of his license. Yet, people continue to insist that there must be a link that they "just know" that their child was made autistic after vaccination.

Within this book, you'll read several stories of sick children. Children who have been hospitalized in pediatric and infant ICUs because they caught preventable diseases from kids who were not vaccinated. Particularly distressing is the story of a six week old baby who couldn't fight off the pertussis (whooping cough) that she came down with before she was old enough to be vaccinated. Can you even imagine knowing that your child died from something so preventable?

It's absolutely true that Mnookin is using these stories to appeal to our emotions. However, there is also a point to be made. Other than in this book, where have you ever heard the other side of this story? I've heard accounts like Jenny McCarthy's in abundance - my child got the vaccine and s/he changed. But as one parent of a child who died of whooping cough points out, she contacted the Oprah show and other news outlets and none of them responded with any interest in her side of the debate. These parents deserve to be heard as well, and to be recognized for the hardship they've gone through.

The tragedy here is that children are being hurt. Millions of dollars have been spent fighting a battle with vaccines that has no basis, when that money could have been spent on the actual children - autism research and tools for the children that are affected by autism. Families whose budgets are stretched to the limits by trying to provide the best for their children are spending their money on 'miracle cures' and remedies based on the idea of autism as a bio-medical condition with a root cause in some vaccine or virus. Meanwhile, Hib, whooping cough, and measles outbreaks are threatening other children with serious illness and even death.

I went into this book already confident that vaccines do not cause autism. I came out of it appalled that the media is still perpetuating this myth, and that people are still believing it. If you've got doubts about your child's vaccines, this is a wonderful book to read that will give you straightforward, scientific facts about the lack of evidence that there is any link whatsoever between autism and vaccines. Beyond that, it will make you think about how you make decisions about what you believe and when to give up and admit that an idea just isn't so. It's well written, well paced, and held my interest every step of the way.

In the epilogue, Mnookin returns to his baby boy and the future he sees for him:

"As my son grows older, I hope that ... he will feel empowered to make his own decisions and will have the self-confidence to challenge traditional wisdom. I also hope that he learned the difference between critical thinking and getting swept up in a wave of self-righteous hysteria, and I hope he considers the effects of his actions on those around him. Finally, for his sake and for that of everyone else alive, I hope he grows up in a world where science is acknowledged not as an ideology but as the best tool we have for understanding the universe, and where striving for the truth is recognized as the most noble quest humankind will ever undertake."
Profile Image for Steve.
389 reviews16 followers
July 7, 2022
THE PANIC VIRUS: FEAR, MYTH AND THE VACCINATION DEBATE is a book by Seth Mnookin that seeks to debunk the myths surrounding vaccines. The book starts with a history of vaccines, tracing their origins back to Edward Jenner's work with smallpox in the late eighteenth century. Mnookin then looks at the rise of the anti-vaccination movement in the early nineteenth century, and how this movement has grown in strength and influence in recent years. He examines the scientific evidence for and against vaccines and concludes that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks. The book is well-written and informative and should be required reading for anyone undecided about whether to vaccinate their children -- or themselves!

I would highly recommend THE PANIC VIRUS to anyone looking for a clear-headed, well-researched examination of the vaccine debate. Mnookin has done an excellent job of separating fact from fiction, and his highly readable book is a valuable contribution to this important public health discussion.
Profile Image for Cleokatra.
282 reviews
February 27, 2011
I read this book with the expectation that it would be like a lot of other books that I've read about junk science. Most people don't understand what science is. They don't understand the difference between a theory and a hypothesis. They think that correlation is causation. They imagine conspiracies of government and industry to steal their money or ruin their lives.

All of that is included in this book, but there is a much sadder undertone. Many of the scientifically illiterate people are parents of developmentally disabled children and can you really judge them for grasping at whatever straws they can find in an effort to help their children? Really? The real villains here are people like Wakefield, who sold phony diagnoses and false hope to desperate parents, and media voices, like Oprah Winfrey, who took advantage of these parents and their children to boost ratings and keep the "controversy" alive.

In reality, there is no controversy about vaccines. They are one of the greatest scientific advances in history and have saved countless lives. I'm not saying that they are perfect. I'm someone who has actually had adverse reactions to vaccines. Still, I'd rather take my chances with that than risk the disease.
208 reviews1 follower
July 23, 2015
Very interesting book. As a nurse, I am strongly pro-vaccine, especially since I have taken care of infants with pertussis and had a glimpse into the horrors of these diseases that we take for granted we don't really see anymore. I appreciated that Mnookin didn't spare the government in his book; he addressed their failings in history in regard to vaccine development as well. It was an interesting discussion of parent intuition vs scientific fact vs media hype and sensationalism. It was another support for my distrust of media. The saddest thing is all the parents and children who have suffered because of this massive dissemination of misinformation, not to mention the untold amounts of money spent on continuing to research the faulty claims of vaccines and autism and hospitalization of thousands of children for diseases that could have been prevented in many cases.
Profile Image for Holly Bik.
155 reviews3 followers
January 25, 2015
For me, this book underlined how important it is for scientists to get out of their Ivory Tower and engage with issues that broadly affect society. It also made me very angry. Science is constantly undermined by the media--people with no credibility (and serious conflicts of interest) are given the limelight to influence public opinion (driven by the media chasing ratings, not balanced information). This book made me want to be a better science communicator. Mnoonkin's book is extremely well researched and detailed, and the narrative surprised me by being surprisingly gripping. The author is clearly exasperated by the persistence of the vaccine debate in the media. I'd highly recommend everyone read this book, since vaccines and public health are once again becoming a serious concern.
Profile Image for Alex.
149 reviews3 followers
April 11, 2011
Puts the anti-vaccine movement in its proper context, i.e. anti-science very much like the denial of climate change. Both anti-scientific movements share a common tool: bad and irresponsible journalism. Not sure how many of those opposed to vaccines would actually read this book though.

Seth Mnookin is a very clear and engaging writer. I also immensely enjoyed his book about the Red Sox - Feeding the Monster.
Profile Image for Merilee.
327 reviews
April 29, 2012
This book is about all the junk science which leads people not to vaccinate their kids and thus ruin the "herd immunity" which would normally keep the rest of us safe from measles, pertussis, and many other illnesses which have been making a comeback. Much of this began from people believing that vaccines caused autism. This causality has been completely debunked by the international scientific and medical communities as the result of many double blind studies
Profile Image for Daphne.
571 reviews66 followers
November 5, 2015
I think EVERY new parent needs to read this book, and write a book report about it. I'm so disgusted that there are ignorant humans running around and breeding, and endangering the rest of us because they would rather trust their "mommy instinct" instead of actual science.
Profile Image for Peacegal.
9,788 reviews87 followers
March 14, 2019
4.5 stars--THE PANIC VIRUS examines the fallout from the anti-vaccine movement. Chances are, you’ve already read about the resurgence of communicable diseases the US thought it conquered long ago, such as measles and whooping cough. These illnesses are not simply a case of the sniffles—they can and do kill people, particularly infants and children. The author’s descriptions of real-life cases of preventable diseases are absolutely chilling.

The vaccine discussion is an extremely emotional one, and the anti-vaccine crusade has moved from the very fringes of society to front-and-center in the new millennium. Some of the most fascinating sections of PANIC VIRUS explain how this has happened. Social media, with its ability to spread misinformation on absolutely everything, is naturally a driving force behind the anti-vaxxers. Celebrities, particularly those whose careers are on the wane, have taken up the mantle of anti-vax, and with that of course comes a herd of media outlets eager to report on what famous people are doing and saying. Shamefully, as the book details, even media more respectable than blogs, talk shows, and tabloid shows have handed a microphone to the anti-vaxxers, which has enabled them to convince even some well-educated people. Some of the most progressive and well-educated parts of the US have now become hotbeds of anti-vaxxers—and preventable diseases. That’s freaking nuts.

Like many other issues with strong emotional ties, activism has unfortunately turned to aggression, with scientists and journalists who speak publicly in favor of vaccination actually receiving death threats.

The author draws parallels between anti-vaxxers and other conspiracy theorists, and what it is about the human mind that makes us susceptible to believing such theories. , Whether liberal, conservative, or in-between, sometimes we can go from healthy questioning of the world around us into philosophies that damage ourselves and others.

PANIC VIRUS doesn’t make this specific connection, but this article notes the similarities between anti-vaxxers and the movement to promote and rebrand higher-risk dogs. Like the anti-vaxxers, the bully breed evangelists have celebrities, special interest groups, and the ear of sympathetic media. They also are willing to put their own children at risk to prove their beliefs. (Unlike vaccination proponents, however, dog attack victims' supporters are like sneezes in a hurricane, with most casual observers of the issue not even aware of their side of the discussion.)

I would ask that anyone tempted to fall on the side of the anti-vaxxers to please read this book and seriously consider its message before making the decision not to vaccinate yourself or your children.
Profile Image for Shyames.
269 reviews27 followers
January 9, 2022
Podziwiam ogrom pracy jaki autor musiał włożyć w ogarnięcie tematu. Samo zerknięcie na obszerną bibliografię, masę przypisów (które przebiły tysiąc) i dokładne opisywanie cytatów mówi wiele o tym jak poważnie Mnookin podszedł do opisania tej historii.
Przeraża mnie ta masowa dezinformacja ale jeszcze bardziej fakt, że jest aż tak wielu ludzi, którzy dla pieniędzy, popularności, czy czego tam jeszcze, są gotowi wykorzystać rodziny, które znalazły się w ciężkiej sytuacji. Po raz kolejny powiedzenie, że "jak nie wiadomo o co chodzi, to chodzi o pieniądze" okazuje się prawdziwe.
Profile Image for Jessie.
471 reviews31 followers
May 11, 2018
Audiobook DNF, could not get into this at all.
1 review
July 21, 2020
Real good! It's a very thorough summary of the history, psychology, and science that led to the anti-vaxxer movement. When covered correctly, this topic gets dry, but Mnookin writes well enough that it's not too tough to get through. A decent chunk of the book pulls apart fallacies in other books/articles/news segments, and I don't plan on reading any more books about the topic, so I will have to trust that Mnookin isn't making the same mistakes as his examples. The ~30 page bibliography helps set me at ease. This book didn't really give me any insight into the future of the very different Coronavirus, but it did help me understand why the American public has been reacting the way they have to current events. Chapter 16 (Cognitive Biases and Availability Cascades) stands on its own.
Profile Image for Matthew Harbowy.
Author 1 book8 followers
September 9, 2012
A five star thesis in a two star book.

Most of the premise of this book hinges on the concept of authority: that the consensus of authority represents provisional truth, while those in opposition do not represent an equally valid point due to the absolute correctness and overwhelming evidence for the provisional truth.

Mnookin spends a lot of time demonizing (even resorting to elliptical character attacks) the experts of the "other side"- which I suspect is exactly what "they" want. Despite an orgy of evidence to suggest that vaccines are safe and effective, he provides very little in the way of explanation for anecdotal observations which at a common-sense level seem to support the anti-vaccine crowd, nor what an individual can do when faced with what appears to be a minority occurrence. He even is bold enough to reveal his own demon haunted world- toward the end of the book, he says (paraphrasing) "I'm a parent now too, and vaccines freak me out".

Much of the fear of vaccines is that we know absolutely nothing about how they work. Furthermore, they seem to work better when you add aluminum salts, a result that is completely without mechanistic basis, is purely experiential. That vaccines work, though, is without question- the problem is not accepting that they work. The problem is the way in which this is communicated and understood.

Vaccines work much like a training: there's no value to a student of e.g. judo if they go out and get killed in their first fight. The body needs to be trained- the muscles and bones need to reconfigure to flex when needed, resist breaking at other times, and the mind has to be clear and watchful for advance warning of what the opponent is attempting to do. The body cannot be reasoned with, therefore, by exposing the body to training agents (that is, the challenge agents in the vaccines) the body gains practical experience in how to fight the opponent without dying in the process. And, like any training process, there's a risk that one ill-timed move or a slightly less experienced sensei causes an unfortunate student to be injured. The fact that injury is possible does not diminish the value of training. In some cases, minor injury is the point of training, what makes it work!

In the end, Mnookin's conclusion is 100% correct, and 99% useless- if you are convinced of the value of vaccines, you will get your children vaccinated, and this book provides you nothing to feel any better or worse about your choice. It will, however, leave you with nagging fears about the fragility of both the supply chain, and the immunity of the herd around you. If you are anti-vaccine, this is not the book to help reverse your inclination, or even inform you.

In short, I believe that the flaw lies in ourselves- that we want "the best outcome" for our children, that is, we want all of our children to be above average. Mnookin delivers absolutely no insights into the real demon, that the best statistical outcome can still cause much individual suffering, and what to do about that suffering such that viruses and vaccines are not a source of panic.

In some ways, he merely extends the fifteen minutes of fame of Wakefield and McCarthy- it's really impossible to not do so when you are writing about a time and place so intertwined with their screaming faces. This is the sad outcome of the story: victims are easily victimized further, both by themselves and the arrogance of a permissive society determined to allow private innovation at any cost. The parents of autism flee the alleged "corporate profiteering of the vaccine industry" for the welcoming arms of exponentially worse hucksters willing to sell them placebos at a hefty markup. This is the object lesson of panic- it often prompts people out of the frying pan and into the fire. Mnookin does not, in my opinion, succeed in explaining the merits of the frying pan to the sizzling.
Profile Image for Kelly.
85 reviews
April 11, 2012
I gotta start writing drafts on my book club books reviews because then I always forget to go back and write about them. Particularly this one, which the members of the Tipsy Ladies Book Club all universally loved so much that we barely had anything to talk about.

So, anyway, what I really love about Seth Mnookin, both from this book, Feeding the Monster and his magazine features, is that he has a way of examining an issue like he's manipulating it in Photoshop. Like, let's look at the autism-vaccine panic, and then let's zoom out to discuss how this was all taking place during the same time Stephen Colbert coined the phrase "truthiness" and the Bush administration was talking about the "reality-based community." And now let's rotate the issue 90 degrees so we can see how it connects all the way back to polio vaccine panic. And now let's bring into focus how vaccines actually work and how how they're counter-intuitive to people's hardwired behavioral responses to the threat of infectious disease.

Just a totally fascinating book, and my only critiques were areas where I wanted a bigger zoom or a different 90 degree pivot, but some of those were so big that they would have had to be their own books. [*]

TLDR: Vaccinate your kids.

[*] For what it's worth: the autism-vaccine myth is about a mostly white, mostly educated and middle-to-upper class group of people believing that the government is lying to them about their health. (And as an aside, I thought one of the most AMAZING little nuggets that Mnookin introduces was that the parents that first accused the government of causing polio with the polio vaccine were university professors who had pulled strings to make sure their kids were some of the first vaccinated.) And there IS a history of the government lying to people about their health and their specific health risks, but the most egregious examples (Tuskegee trials, women treated with electroshock therapy and forced lobotomies, mentally ill and disabled individuals who were forcibly sterilized) all occurred among marginalized populations. The government does do really fucked up shit to people through medicine, vaccine-deniers, but not to people like you.

I think it would be interesting to examine how the privileged characteristics of the population that bought into the vaccine myth contributed to how much attention it got. Because "Fanta causes sterility" and "the government gave black people HIV" have as much scientific basis as "vaccines cause autism" but I think there's a reason why the latter made its way onto Oprah and the two former are studied as classic urban legends.
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