In 1998 Andrew Wakefield claimed to have found a link between a common childhood vaccine and autism. Wakefield based his findings on a case study of just a dozen children, and his methods and conclusions almost immediately came under fire. Rather than appealing to his colleagues, however, he went to the press, who seized on the story of a maverick doctor standing up to the powerful pharmaceutical industry. Within months, vaccination rates across Europe and America had started to fall, resulting in deaths from diseases previously thought to be disappearing.
The panic triggered by Wakefield’s study is part of a much bigger story about fear, myth and medicine. Decisions about children’s health have always aroused strong passions, but the rise of ‘alternative’ medicine and the internet have magnified such anxieties. In The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin takes us inside the anti-vaccination community and the medical establishment. He examines how the anti-vaccination movement spread, and looks at a controversial Australian case that exposed the claims and tactics of the movement to new scrutiny. Sorting fact from rumour, Mnookin confronts difficult questions: with more information at our fingertips than ever, why is our trust in science so fragile? Why did the anti-vaccination movement take hold so quickly? How to balance fact and intuition when it comes to decisions about health?
The Panic Virus is an extraordinary and gripping feat of research and reporting.