The Autistic Journalist

Using words to explain the mind

Posts Tagged ‘vaccine

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.

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100 stories for autism surveyors

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Traffic to The Autistic Journalist has skyrocketed once more after I returned from my three-month hiatus, and thanks to your support and the constant stream of articles I find, you are currently reading my 100th post since I activated the site in January 2009. The journey of archiving and analyzing how journalists report on the autism spectrum has allowed me to examine autism and reference what I’m discussing instead of simply going off my own observations. Since my first post, this site has recorded more than 12,000 visits and two syndications with Autisable and Disability Resource Exchange. I’m grateful for this outreach so far, but I doubt they will be the only ways of spreading my message.

Speaking of messages, two surveys whose results were published in the May issue of Pediatrics and picked up by U.S. News and World Report found that 93 percent of parents who participated had or were going to get all recommended vaccines for their children, while 76 percent said they trusted their doctors a lot. However, 24 percent of respondents said they placed trust in what celebrities say about vaccinations, which segued to autism activist Jenny McCarthy, who is known among the autism community for her opposition to vaccinations despite numerous studies refuting a link and the official retraction of the study that initiated the controversy (some of those stories are featured on this very site).

Dr. Gary Freed, one study author who is also the director of the child health evaluation and research unit at the University of Michigan, cautioned giving too much credit to celebrities who may not share the same background as researchers do. Freed was quoted saying there is a danger in the media of putting up celebrities as experts for any topic they have an opinion on, even though they have no expertise in immunizations or infectious diseases.

The second survey highlights a second obstacle that was explored by PBS’ Frontline documentary on vaccinations last year. 22 percent of those respondents said they were concerned about their child receiving too many vaccinations and the potential for damage to a child’s immune system (some vaccines, including flu shots, will use dead cells of the virus for the body’s immune system to absorb, allowing cells to fight off active versions of those viruses). Freed said that even if parents feel uneasy about their child getting poked often and early, that shouldn’t dissuade the notion of staying on schedule with vaccinations since many diseases they protect can be lethal for children and cause outbreaks for everyone else; Minnesota has been fighting a measles outbreak in recent weeks.

Jenifer Goodwin, the reporter who published the U.S. News study, faced a difficult proposition by covering two studies based on survey questions. One can be tricky enough for the audience to consume, as many stories that report poll figures will throw out a lot of statistics. Goodwin found an effective way to include both by finding one of the study authors and a second researcher who specializes in pediatric care for infectious diseases to spell out what the numbers mean. Not all writers do this when they recap poll numbers. Goodwin used her lead to highlight the biggest finding from the surveys, the overwhelming majority of parents who will follow the recommended vaccination schedule for their children, and quickly tied that to the ongoing controversy of the vaccine-autism link.

Some readers will read the first few paragraphs and then skim through the rest of the story, which is why print writers often employ the strategy Goodwin executes in her piece: the inverted pyramid. The inverted pyramid promotes placing the most important details of a story first, then include relevant but less necessary data in later paragraphs. While the web and various forms of blogging means writers don’t have to be as rigid with the format, the inverted pyramid remains a common form of print journalism and won’t stop being taught in workshops and classes that teach the craft.

Regarding the surveys, my biggest curiosity was the story reporting women and Hispanics being more likely to trust celebrities of the 24 percent that said they trusted them for vaccine information. Women cover just over half of the population and will have many backgrounds in their family lineage, while Hispanics are a growing segment of the American population that doesn’t rule out men believing what celebrities have to say. To gauge why the two responded the way they did would require a psychological expertise I don’t have, but we do see women more often for autism stories than men when it comes to the personal experience. Even the article from my last post on Holly Robinson-Peete spent the entire duration on her efforts, even though she and her husband are both involved in autism awareness. I’ve heard anecdotal suggestions that women are more enticing for autism stories because of their increased likelihood to display more volatility with emotional output, while men continue to live with the assumption they must be “tough guys.” Nothing is linear, of course, and families, researches, and other caretakers familiar with autism are well aware that support isn’t limited to the female gender.

There is potential for a follow-up story with the Hispanic community and autism (which would require a more complete perspective than their belief in celebrities), but I doubt the same regarding women, since that would leave many stations and papers in a state of self-critical research, and they’re not keen to highlighting trends they either caused or promoted that may not be beneficial for journalism itself.

Goodwin’s ability to guide us through two polls and not overwhelm us with numbers allows readers to feed off its notes, and also continues to suggest that the public is either growing tired of the vaccine-autism debate when evidence is clearly one-sided, taking more initiative to learn about all facets of autism, or both. Autism may not exist without a controversy for several years, but signs suggest the most visible issue in the last five years is slowly fading.

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

Wakefield supporters refuse to sleep

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I was going to post solely on Dr. Andrew Wakefield getting banned from practicing medicine in his native Great Britain after his paper proposing a link between vaccinations and autism was discredited and retracted, but a more recent article in the Chicago Tribune suggests he has already taken notice.

Feeding off the strong support he still has (I discussed why people would still follow him even if his research was ruled dishonest when news of the ruling made its first appearance in the press), Wakefield stated that he planned to resume his research at a vaccination-choice rally at Grant Park in Chicago, in conjunction with a conference hosted by Generation Rescue. Wakefield plans to start a “virtual university” where he will design research programs to examine the causes of autism and other diseases. Rally supporters (a small crowd according to the article) claimed they were unfairly labeled as anti-vaccine folk. On the other side of the spectrum, over 200 health experts met in a downtown hotel to figure out how to increase vaccination rates, which dropped after Wakefield’s paper was published and led to measles outbreaks in the United States and Britain.

We do learn something new that puts a perspective on the vaccine debate. Resistance can be traced back to the 19th century, which means the issue may not be as modern for those who lack experience in the medical field as once thought. The closing paragraphs mirror the message transmitted in Frontline’s look at the issue: vaccines were effective at preventing diseases, shifting focus to the safety of vaccines themselves, despite the slim chance of immunization recipients developing an adverse reaction to them.

Another point of contention may be Wakefield’s view of autism as a disease that can be cured. Folks who believe autism can be reversed may be at odds with theories suggesting the condition is caused by a genetic malfunction, and that doesn’t factor the myriad of studies concluding no link between autism and vaccines, a point often beat to death by reporters when they report on the subject.

Wakefield’s speech and plan of action resemble the mindset of many who are directly criticized over their ethical or lawful shortcomings (search political scandals and you’ll find plenty among our elected officials). They often deny such accusations or continue to tout their beliefs. While a healthy amount of skepticism is necessary to ensure the answers are indeed correct, promoting an idea refuted by hard evidence suggests stubbornness may be at play. Stubborn refusal of the truth is often a weakness of human emotion.

The Wakefield coverage also suggests that we’re nowhere near wrapping up coverage of the controversy surrounding vaccines and autism. The continuing press is likely because no other theory is juicy or concrete enough to warrant publicity among media’s major players. Until then, journalists will often retreat to what’s popular in the present. Vaccine skeptics will likely remain unless a widespread outbreak of a preventable disease occurs, and the true loser may be the autism community as time and resources are spent on old wounds.

With great power comes great responsibility

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Photo by Peter MacDiarmid, Getty Images

For that power can influence a large segment of the population. British doctor Andrew Wakefield, the origin of the anti-vaccine movement by suggesting MMR vaccines played a role in developing autism spectrum disorder in children, was accused of dishonesty and irresponsibility last week by the General Medical Council.

The Guardian’s story (UK news outlet) reports the GMC accusing Wakefield of conducting unnecessary and invasive tests on children after receiving conditional approval for his hypothesis from the Royal Free committee. The article lists other ethical violations conducted by Wakefield, including tests and procedures that were unnecessary for the study subjects’ health and failing to include details of his studies, such as funding. The GMC will make a ruling in April. If Wakefield is found guilty of professional misconduct, his medical license could be stripped.

We’ve already seen the damage caused by supposed the MMR vaccine/autism link, despite several major studies proving the contrary. Wakefield’s theory caused a sudden drop in MMR vaccinations in the United Kingdom and a mumps outbreak soon followed. West of the Atlantic, faces of the cure autism movement, including Jenny McCarthy, voice concerns about vaccinations causing autism. Before you brand these people idiots, it’s perfectly healthy to express skepticism in the face of presented evidence (the global warming bombshell during the December Copenhagen summit reminded us of the shortcuts people take to fit their argument). As I mentioned last summer when I talked about a Jenny McCarthy profile article, skepticism makes sure the science is right.

Is it surprising Wakefield’s ruling drew many protesters who still support him? When you apply the skepticism argument, hardly. The ruling came 12 years after Wakefield first proposed a link, which left a lot of time to get a movement behind him. Complicating the message is the timing of the MMR vaccine. The shot is administered around 18 months of age for a child, which is also the time symptoms of autism begin to appear in children. With an indisputable cause nowhere in sight, parents or relatives who don’t fully process the situation often point fingers at the most recent event in the timeline, which is very likely MMR or another vaccine. Parents concerned about immunizations often claim their children were developing normally until they received a shot, even though no link has been established.

In the short-term, the story got some press in local and national outlets in the United States, but I don’t see a major shift vacating the idea that booster shots and autism share a link. Cable news and online columns contribute to a massive harvest where viewers can pick their interests, tuning out any argument that confronts those viewpoints. Until a cause is found, I expect those behavioral patterns to appear with the anti-vaccine movement inside the autism community. However, the accusations against Wakefield also serve as proof that healthy skepticism is effective; when someone presents a theory that has little to no scientific credence, the drawing behind the theory may not be complete. Going further on the ethical road, we can point to a disease outbreak caused by a decrease in shots in the UK. If a link does exist, is saving a child from a developmental disability worth the risk of contracting a disease that is completely preventable?

Written by TheSportsBrain

January 31, 2010 at 10:45 pm