Seth Mnookin on medicine, science and fear

10/26/11 Dawn Morgan
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Science writer and journalist Seth Mnookin's third book, released earlier this year, is The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear.

WMNF's Dawn Morgan spoke with Mnookin about the fear explosion in the media and what doctors and parents alike can do to combat misinformation.

"It was something that I noticed in conversations with my friends. A lot of them were either young parents or expectant parents. And that hadn’t been a topic that had been on my radar previously. And so I started looking into it, and the more I did, the more it seemed to me that there was a story that really deserved to be told, not from the perspective of someone who already had their mind made up or who was coming to the issue as a partisan of one side of the other."

The CDC listed vaccinations among the top 10 greatest public health achievements of the 20th Century. But there’s a handful of people who oppose that?

"I think what you see much more, and probably what public health officials are more worried about is not so much opposition but either an attitude that goes from general skepticism to a sense that vaccines aren’t that important anymore. And I think that’s something you see throughout history in cycles. Whenever vaccines are more widely used and become more effective, and the diseases that they combat the start to disappear from a population, you tend to get a group of people who are either concerned of the possible negative effects of the vaccines, or a wider population that really doesn’t see why they’re needed anymore. I would say that the percentage of the population adamant vaccine opponents is fairly small but the percentage of the population that is a little bit hazy on the necessity and benefit of vaccination is not quite as insignificant."

Anything else to add about the topic?

"I think both doctors and parents really need to work to have a conversation that extends beyond just the two or three minutes in the course of a typical wellness appointment and find ways to address fears and concerns and misgivings and misconceptions and find a way to do that that feels satisfying for everyone involved. The fact the parent had his or her child vaccinated doesn’t mean that that parent was 100% comfortable with the process. And I think that’s a real problem. We should be at a point where when we have medical procedures, interventions that are potentially life saving, we should make sure that the patients, parents of the infants who are undergoing those, understand what is at stake and understand why this is important and that this isn’t just a vestige of a previous time. That children do die in this country in this day and age of whooping cough. 10 kids died in California alone. Some children are still hospitalized with measles. They’re very real repercussions. On the flip side, there’s no evidence whatsoever that vaccines cause a lot of the things that they’re rumored to cause, like autism, which is one thing we hear all the time. Absolutely no evidence of that. I think anything that parents and doctors can do to further that conversation and establish a discourse and real trust is only going to be good for the country going forward.

"Another part in this situation is, I think everyone, doctors and patients are really dissatisfied with how the health system works in our country. So right now there are not a lot of opportunities to have the type of conversations with a doctor in which you might get some of these concerns addressed. You come in, have a 15 minute window, the doctor is probably a couple of minutes late, there’s another screaming child behind you in the waiting room. It’s an incredibly stressful environment, and one that almost seems singularly unconducive to having a real conversation."

Author Seth Mnookin will be speaking at USF in Tampa at noon on Thursday in the Samuel P. Bell auditorium.

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