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

Seth Mnookin
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 11 2011
WHO DECIDES WHICH FACTS ARE TRUE?

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 a riveting and sometimes heart-breaking medical detective story that explores the limits of rational thought. It is the ultimate cautionary tale for our time.

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The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear + Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure
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Review

“With rationality and science under siege these days, Seth Mnookin has produced a riveting and important chronicle of one life-and-death realm in which passionate, panicky belief has dangerously trumped reason—and put millions of children at risk.” (Kurt Andersen, Host, "Studio 360")

“Seth Mnookin has given us a non-fiction story worthy of Michael Crichton—an absorbing, disturbing and scrupulously researched account of a contagion of human unreason run wild. This time the hysteria was over autism; the next panic virus could be even more dangerous.” (Jonathan Mahler, author of The Challenge and Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning)

“An accomplished journalist, Seth Mnookin takes an objective look at both sides of the vaccine/autism controversy and lands squarely on the side of science. With humor and wit, The Panic Virus examines the often bizarre events that led some families to become distrustful of science and erroneously conclude that vaccines might cause autism. This book will leave you scratching your head in pure amazement that this issue could get so out of hand when the science is so clear.” (Alison Singer, President, Autism Science Foundation)

“In plain language, Seth Mnookin provides an excellent narrative and evaluation that helps clarify for readers how and why vaccine controversies have arisen over the years as well as sensible ways for readers to understand the science that supports vaccine usage. Vaccines are the most effective public health measure since clean water.” (Judith Palfrey, MD, FAAP, professor of pediatrics, Harvard Medical School and author of Child Health in America)

“Seth Mnookin understood there was something more to the cruelly misled and dangerously misleading vaccines-cause-autism movement than just an unhappy group of parents with a need to blame someone. He saw the connection between this deathless conspiracy theory and the proliferating irrationality of a society that has supersized its information diet while starving its capacity to think straight. For that reason alone—not to mention the deft, often charming characterizations woven into its skillful and fascinating narrative—this is an important, powerful, and bracing book.” (Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine and Ripe)

"There have been hundreds of recent outbreaks of ailments like whooping cough and measles that we thought would be eradicated by now—and might have been, if not for the anti-vaccine obfuscation. Bravo Seth Mnookin for digging for the truth and telling eloquent stories of what happens when lies, half-truths and self-interest collide with fear." (Laurie Garrett, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of Betrayal of Trust: The Collapse of Global Public Health)

"Mr. Mnookin's passionate defense of vaccination may be just what the public needs, in equal parts because of what it says and because of who is saying it. . . . Parents who want to play it safe, but are not altogether sure how, should turn with relief to this reasoned, logical and comprehensive analysis of the facts." (Abigail Zuger, M.D. The New York Times)

About the Author

Seth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a former senior writer for Newsweek, where he covered media, politics, and popular culture. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, New York magazine, and many other publications. He is the author of The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear; Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top and Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media.  He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Great easy read - and necessary Sept. 4 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Great easy read for anyone who want to know more about vaccinations and autism, and the BS link created by some physicans and overburdened parents.

If you want to know the real story, and why kids should be vaccinated, read this!!!!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Essential reading for parents Sept. 7 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Well written, sensitive, compassionate but rigourously factual and balanced. Highlights the way in which science is often hijacked by the media with horrific consequences. If only everyone read this book.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  110 reviews
60 of 63 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Hard to read, hard not to. March 23 2011
By Amazon User - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent, and (despite what some will say) relatively unbiased account of the history and consequences of anti-vaccine sentiment. As a scientist, it is fascinating, but maddening to read the accounts of entire nationwide organizations devoted to denying what real, peer-reviewed, well-designed science has shown them.
116 of 128 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One side appeals to the heart, the other to the brain Jan. 19 2011
By EJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The title of my review comes from a quote in the book by Arthur Allen, who was describing what, to date, has been the penultimate courtroom showdown in the debate over vaccines and autism. As a mother, I could not agree more. Decisions related to our children's healthcare are agonizing and should be done carefully, using the best information available. In my opinion, this book summarizes that information as well as can be done when distilling complex science down to its most elemental truths. Even though to me it was pretty clear which side of the debate the author falls on, he nevertheless managed to present both sides of the argument and write a pretty engaging story while at it.

The Panic Virus focuses primarily on the debate over vaccines, thimerosal, and autism, but it doesn't end there. Mnookin doesn't gloss over mistakes that were made by the CDC and other government bodies in overseeing the safety of multiple vaccines. Even as someone who has a lot of respect for the contributions of vaccines to public health, I was taken aback by some of the points he made regarding the lack of rigorous safety studies in some areas related to vaccines.

However, he also presents the science that has demonstrated as conclusively as possible that vaccines do not cause autism. Those looking for the ultimate proof of a negative will not find it here, because it cannot be done using science, as Mnookin points out. He also covers some of the psychological reasons for why people are so willing to believe in junk science, and discusses Andrew Wakefield's chicanery in detail. Finally, he gives a voice to families whose children have been harmed by the anti-vaccination movement.

In fairness, one or two of the more esoteric points about the science are a tiny bit off the mark. But this should not distract the reader from the brick wall of scientific evidence presented regarding the lack of an association between vaccines and autism. I am surprised that this book has not gotten more media coverage given the topic. It's well-researched, well-written, and about as fair as can be given the heated subject. It's simply appalling that the science of this controversial story does not get the press that the more sensational anti-vaccinators have received. Read it with an open mind.
64 of 71 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A compassionate and factual look at vaccine fears Feb. 8 2011
By Biogrrl - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Reviews for this book in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Nature (the world's top scientific journal), the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, New Scientist, and many, many others have all been highly positive, and that's for a reason: Mnookin has carefully and masterfully parsed the story of the fear that has built up around vaccines and how that happened. But even as he focuses meticulously on the facts and evidence about vaccines, he is compassionate and understanding of the fear--and yes, the panic--that have driven one of the most groundless panic attacks the world has seen over a medical intervention. He does not hesitate to call out his own in this book, pointing to the news media as having played a substantial role in beating the panic drums. As anyone who's spent time in the "vaccine wars" foxholes knows, this issue remains a highly contentious one, and some people will cling to the wrong information and wrong icons no matter what the facts say. But, Mnookin's book isn't for them; it's for anyone who's seriously looking for information and context, whether that's a new parent considering vaccines for their child for the first time or an open-minded explorer trying to trace how it is that the greatest public health success in history came to be demonized. He does it without becoming shrill, with a measured and thoughtful voice throughout. Highly recommended.
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A theme much bigger than its narrow-sounding topic March 16 2011
By Princessleo - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Quite simply, this is one of the best books I have read in years. The "topic" is the anti-vaccination movement, and how inaccurate (to put it politely) research led to thousands of parents being scared to have their children vaccinated for fear vaccines cause autism. But the context goes so much further. What Sean Mnookin points out exceptionally clearly is the way in which our politicians and media could be manipulated into giving the research of Andrew Wakefield a credibility it clearly never should have had. It is a case study on how passionate advocates, with the aid of the Internet, can take control of an issue and overwhelm well-done and proper science. It is perhaps one of the most egregious cases of this sort, but, as Mnookin points out, it is certainly not the only one. This book ought to be required reading for every high school student in the land to increase their media literacy and, we might hope, to prevent so many from getting caught up in the next great non-issue of the day.
31 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This damn book kept me up until 4:30 a.m. May 2 2011
By E. Fields - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I went into this book knowing all about the lying scam artist "Doctor" Wakefield and the flawed "logic" behind anti-vaccine activists. I had read (and loved) "Denialism", and I really just expected more of the same.

I was wrong. This book places the current anti-vaccine/ anti-science plague spreading across America in a historical context in which I had never considered it. It was fascinating to read about the flawed polio trials, and how fear of vaccinations has been with us even though crude, ur-vaccinations were present in 8th Century India.

I don't want to give everything away about this book because Mr. Mnookin writes so wonderfully. To attempt to distill it into a few words here would be unfair. If you are interested in learning more about how and why people cling to anti-scientific beliefs, and how history keeps on repeating itself despite all of our advances, you absolutely must read this book.
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