The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘debate

West coast no refuge for unvaccinated

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Last year, I explored a Frontline documentary on vaccinations, and the traveling crew visited a Washington city to hear from parents who opted out of vaccinations. The Seattle Times via the Associated Press published a spiritual follow-up that studies Washington kindergartners from the 2009-10 school year, and discovered that six percent of students were missing at least one vaccine that is required in virtually all other states. The most commonly skipped vaccine was chicken pox (a vaccine that could have saved me an inconvenience, I carry scars from my bout as a child).

The number of school children fully vaccinated has steadily declined in Washington since 1997. A state law enacted in July is aiming to close a loophole that allowed parents to avoid providing proof of vaccination at schools. Accordingly, diseases prevented by vaccines are also increasing, with over 600 cases of whooping cough reported in Washington last year, more than double the 2009 rate. Nothing has changed about the concerns of vaccines, with apprehensive individuals pointing to data from the National Vaccine Injury compensation showing an estimated $2 billion has been paid out in cases claiming problems associated with vaccines. Scientists counter that it’s hard to prove cause and effect with the millions of vaccinated individuals with no long-term health problems, but doubt remains with some parents arguing doctors can’t prove vaccinations didn’t influence an autism diagnosis.

The article is simply the latest chapter in the vaccine debate I’ve explored heavily on this blog, but the Washington saga underscores the shift in people not fully vaccinated from the economically disadvantaged to well-educated parents who do their own research, which isn’t necessarily conclusive or even unbiased. The Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” explained how celebrities and other notable names can drive beliefs even without scientific backing, with Jenny McCarthy’s views on autism making headlines a few years ago (her book details how she “rescued” her son from the disorder). Worth repeating, vaccines are so effective at stopping previously perilous diseases that many of them have resurfaced only recently as a result of decreasing immunization rates. Parents have more time to be “nit-picky,” which means more opportunities to develop emotionally charged theories that carry little scientific weight. However, with feelings and emotions usually a stronger bond in the human psyche than facts and figures, concerns about vaccine safety will likely continue to remain difficult, if not impossible, to immunize.

Gauging the tipping point is difficult to ascertain with regard to time and intervention, as Washington’s state law now requires parents to meet with medical providers and provide proof a consultation took place. I doubt anyone in the scientific community is wishing for an outbreak to convince doubters with potential implications to the public’s health and media coverage, but general reporting on the vaccine controversy is growing to a tired cycle of studies disproving a link and worried parents whose beliefs can interfere with knowledge. I’ll continue to analyze the relation given its prevalence in mainstream media, but a fresh avenue could be traveled by examining attempts to reach out to critics beyond rehashing the benefits to reporters seeking to fill space or time in the news circuit.

Vaccine plot thickens with new government study

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The timing of today’s biggest autism story is worth noting after last week’s vaccine court settlement. Many news sites are publishing a Centers for Disease Control study that found no evidence of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in most vaccines until 2001, increasing the risk of a child developing autism. The study joins several others over the last decade that reached the same conclusion.

Specifically, the study found that kids who were exposed to high levels through their own vaccinations or their mothers while pregnant, did not have a higher chance of receiving an autism diagnosis. The research used data for 1,000 U.S. children born from 1994 to 1999, about as recent as they can go with thimerosal no longer used in childhood vaccinations outside of the flu shot.

The article provides what is now a familiar background, citing the now-discredited Wakefield study of 1998 that caused parents to refrain from giving measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to their children, leading to outbreaks of all three diseases. Reuters (the outlet I’m deciphering for this story) also included a quick recap of the condition, including the scientific theory that autism is influenced by genes and the range of severity the disability inflicts on its inhabitants.

The story itself resembles many I’ve read before that also reported no link between anything related to vaccinations and autism, and odds suggest more stories will appear as the debate continues. The study is perhaps the best antidote the government could get at this moment, with the publication of last week’s settlement where the government conceded that vaccinations aggravated a child’s underlying conditions. Although they’re under the same umbrella, one item to note is the two stories dealing with two different branches of government. One dealt with the Court of Federal Claims under the judicial branch, while this story focuses on the CDC, a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services. The nature of studies would also render any conspiracy accusations ineffective, since five years of data was mined and analyzed. However, the data used should clarify the lengthy process that goes into studies, preventing factual compromises of the conclusions presented upon publication.

While the PR twist is the juiciest element upon examining the story, Reuters’ decision to recap autism again is interesting. Measuring the intelligence and memory capacity of an entire country is nearly impossible, but with news articles of any subject easily accessible online through a Google News search, combined with the coverage through traditional means, the question now could be how long does the absorption process take with topics previously unheard of. Autism has and will continue to be a complex, fascinating example, with news coverage on the subject not common until last decade. Autism’s ambiguity could also be a factor; there aren’t enough parallels to create “stereotypes.” Because no clear signals are present, knowing if and when other people encounter autistic people is extremely difficult.

As the government and other medical experts continue attempting to calm fears about vaccinations potentially harming kids, I’ll be paying attention to how many more times articles include the classic “introduction” of autism and its effects, as that will be the biggest indicator of how much knowledge the public has on the disability.

Vaccine-autism debate injected with flames

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Courtesy John Spink, AP/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The vaccine-autism debate may fire up once more after CBS News reported that the family of Hannah Poling, an autistic girl once at the center of the debate, will be awarded $1.5 million by the federal government for “injuries” related to her vaccinations. The government said vaccines aggravated an unknown mitochondrial disorder that didn’t cause autism, but resulted in it.

Poling was center stage a couple years ago when the federal government ruled vaccinations didn’t cause her conditions, but played a role. The ruling also aggravated the debate of whether vaccines were the culprit in autistic people. The ruling itself was actually a settlement originally declared in 2007 before the case went to trial, and the case was then sealed. Keep in mind, the ruling came down long before Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s study was ruled dishonest and unethical. Jenny McCarthy and then-boyfriend Jim Carrey were also involved in promoting vaccine safety, with McCarthy claiming vaccinations caused her son’s autism. Strange as it sounds to talk about events that happened only two years ago, there are many changes in how autism is approached on several fronts. I’ve documented several of them on this blog.

While chatter will likely increase as people are reminded about this story, the developments outside the Poling case create an interesting context. Without Wakefield’s ruling, this story might carry more force, despite CBS reporting that all other cases similar to Poling’s have been defeated at trial. A recent CNN story (which I’ll discuss in detail on a future blog) reported 18 studies after Wakefield’s findings were published that found no link between vaccines and autism. Mainstream news reports investigating the possible connection have essentially vanished since Wakefield’s ruling. However, it’s not uncommon for journalists to do follow-up stories on major events or people, and CBS was doing exactly that when it reported the settlement amount for Poling’s family. Although nearly 5,000 cases are awaiting disposition in federal vaccine court, I doubt we’ll get much coverage unless another ruling is made that supports the supposed link between autism and vaccines. News organizations stopped writing articles after coming across several studies that refuted a connection a couple years ago.

Choosing an amount of coverage for a news story is tricky, outside of major events like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. A skeptical audience plays a large impact on what gets reported. Go crazy and consumers will be annoyed and/or desensitized to the issue, as was the case with the heavy saturation of H1N1 stories in 2009. Go light and folks may question an organization’s values if they skimped a story the audience deems valuable (this includes celebrity gossip). The only constant is events, such as sports competitions, the State of the Union address and holidays.

While the impact of the Poling settlement may not carry as much force as it did two years ago, I doubt this will be the last time the vaccine-autism link is explored in journalism. There’s too much emotional electricity for the topic to short itself out.

Written by TheSportsBrain

September 10, 2010 at 10:34 am

PBS vaccinates public with information

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PBS always find itself in the middle of controversies. Not of their own doing of course, but thanks to their flagship documentary program, Frontline, they often explore contemporary issues that aren’t ethically compromised since they’re not run by a for-profit conglomerate compared to most networks.

A few weeks ago, the network that coined “Viewers Like You” broadcast a Frontline episode titled “The Vaccine War.” Autism followers are already aware of the emotionally charged debate that started when Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his now discredited study that proposed a link between MMR vaccines and autism. But even autistics must share. While the autism debate gets about half of the allotted time for the show, PBS also examined the broader issue of alternative medicine. The core controversy Frontline discovered surrounding the vaccine debate mirror other forms of contemporary politics: A parent’s right to decide what’s best for his or her child versus doing what’s best for the community. Medical experts featured on the show explained that an irony may have sparked the debate: Vaccines were so effective at ridding the country of serious diseases (pertussis, chicken pox, polio) that younger parents and adults haven’t seen or heard about these diseases for years (If anyone’s doubting chicken pox, I still have scars from my infection as a kid). Much like the core issue of autism, when people don’t get firsthand exposure or information, the atmosphere is ripe for doubt or skepticism about the existence of such diseases. The result? A potential for a return of diseases once believed to be eradicated from the United States, such as a measles outbreak in San Diego that was quelled before it swelled.

When Frontline examined autism’s role in the vaccine controversy, they reported information that I already knew either through articles or previous blog posts here. For the sake of the community, they had to. The documentary did provide more detailed reports on the major studies that refuted a vaccine-autism link and looked into why the anti-vaccine movement is gaining steam. The conclusion? New media, which includes the very site I’m using to analyze the program, has created a vast amount of hype and misinformation that counters the dry, factual presentation of professional sites all too well. Personal anecdotes presented at rallies are often more emotionally charged, and are more likely to connect with the public than facts are. Jenny McCarthy is featured in this program, mixed with clips of a speech she gave at a rally protesting the high amount of vaccines given to children at a young age. The problem is compounded when you factor general polls that continue to highlight the public’s lack of trust with government and the increasing fragmentation of media that allows people to align themselves with outlets that match their own beliefs.

You know an issue is serious when the controversy is given the Frontline treatment. Although PBS doesn’t show up on the Nielsen ratings with the other networks, Frontline remains a solid barometer of what is affecting us in the present. Ironically, the new media that fragments our population also gives PBS a way to include extended interviews and reports on the topics discussed during an episode. The show may not be influential enough to completely shift current debates about autism regarding vaccines, but it presents us with an explanation of why the current environment exists. Sometimes understanding why is all that’s needed to move forward.

This marks the first time that Frontline has explored any facet of autism, and “The Vaccine War” could easily be a springboard that takes a closer look at the disability should PBS and WGBH decide to pursue it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that the primary segments of the audience who should watch this program actually will. PBS doesn’t take sides, but anti-vaccine groups may believe the documentary throws a few punches at their opinions while touting the importance of stopping preventable diseases. The pro-vaccine side also stands to benefit since web pages aren’t enough anymore to provide information. Facts are nice, but if they’re not presented in an engaging form, web surfers will find another place to navigate. Frontline usually mixes factual and personal stories well, and the vaccine episode may provide a base for future researchers, reporters and documentary makers to find the next phase of autism and other issues where immunizations are involved.