PLoS Biology on the "vaccine-autism wars"

The open-access journal PLoS Biology has a very good article about the persistence of theories linking autism to vaccines, in spite of any biomedical evidence to support such a link. The piece is written by Liza Gross, a science writer at PLoS and gives a clear account of some of the factors which have created conditions under which vaccine-autism theories have been so convincing to so many parents. In particular, it focuses on recent work by medical anthropologist Sharon Kaufman of UCSF on “how parents thought about risk and experts, how these attitudes shaped parents’ decisions about vaccination, and what the vaccine wars might teach us about the long-term erosion of public trust in science,” (Gross 2009).

While the article is written for a general educated audience, it does contain this nice nugget: “Kaufman sees the enduring belief in the vaccine–autism theory as an example of what Ludwik Fleck, a clinical microbiologist with a passion for epistemology, called “an event in the history of thought”—a critical step in the way the perception of a scientific fact changes,” (Gross 2009). In addition to giving a concrete account of the legislative changes and studies which initially raised concerns about the safety of vaccines, the article uses Kaufman’s voice to bring up broader issues about how people in contemporary North America and Europe manage risk and uncertain knowledge when presented with a surfeit of information:

“Kaufman sees the persistence of the vaccine–autism theory as a consequence of how individuals manage risk in modern society. People must trust experts to protect them from risk, whether they’re getting on an airplane or vaccinating their kids, she explains. When faith in experts erodes, personal responsibility prevails. “People think if you blindly follow experts, you’re not taking personal responsibility,” she adds.
…Kaufman thinks the problem is more immediate than bridging the gap between lay and expert understanding of risk. Parents treated theoretical risk as fact even as scientists tested, and ultimately rejected, the possibility that thimerosal might harm children. Thinking the institutions that were supposed to protect them from risk failed, Kaufman says, people now do their own research. But instead of leading to more certainty, she explains, “collecting more information actually increases doubt,”(Gross 2009).”

See: Gross L, 2009A Broken Trust: Lessons from the Vaccine–Autism Wars. PLoS Biol 7(5):e1000114.doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000114

Image: National Library of Medicine