Friday, March 20, 2020

"The Panic Virus," by Seth Mnookin--Nonfiction Review

Someone alert Jenny and let’s get our never-ending controversy gloves on because this Friday, in this non-fiction review, we’re talking about “The Panic Virus” by Seth Mnookin. A book about the anti-vaccine movement and a topic that a lot of people feel passionately about, myself included.

I should state right now that I believe in the efficacy of vaccines, and don’t feel that the science supports a link between vaccines and the onset of autism, despite anecdotal evidence. If that’s going to be too troubling for you to read further, I apologize and respect that—and hey, we’ll be talking fiction next week.   

Seth Mnookin

What I love about this book:

Seth Mnookin starts off his book with a real-life human story about a young family whose son gets desperately ill. The boy had contracted Haemophilus Influenza type b, aka Hib, because he never got a critical vaccine as a child. In some cases, a Hib infection can cause a child’s windpipe to close up, and they suffocate to death. This child had to be rushed to Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh and nearly died. It’s a visceral story and immediately tugs at emotional heartstrings, which could be viewed as manipulative if you didn’t believe the rest of the science behind the book.

I like this approach because it contests anti-vaxxers on the same argumentative turf they’re used to arguing on and has the virtue of science behind the argument. The various anti-vaccination movements don’t have any respected medical professionals on their side, nor do they have any credible evidence or studies. What they do have is anecdotal evidence from similar experiences brought together via the internet. They leverage this to appeal emotionally to those they are making their arguments to—and it works because people often believe things simply because it feels true, and not because of sterile medical facts, which is dangerous when we’re talking about life-saving medicine.

All that said, Mnookin doesn’t paint these parents of autistic children as stupid—or even money-grubbing lowlifes trying to make a buck through litigation. I appreciate this approach because autism is a tragic mental disorder for both the child who has it and the parents. With even a modicum of empathy, anyone should be able to understand why a parent would seek out and latch on to anything that can explain their child’s disorder.

The book also gives an excellent history of medicine on this topic, going back to Andrew Wakefield—a former British physician—and his paper published in the Lancet, which ultimately became an embarrassment to the medical journal. Andrew Wakefield also was eventually discredited and struck off the medical register.

Mnookin also examines how this topic took on a life of its own as a dangerous anti-vaccination movement, led by non-medical professionals, like Jenny McCarthy. Whose fame and famous connections, such as Oprah, gave her a tremendous platform to influence other grief-stricken people into believing something that simply isn’t supported by the scientific consensus.           

What I don’t love about this book:

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more liberal as a person. My guiding star is if it’s not hurting anyone, people should have the freedom to do whatever it is they desire, so long as everyone involved are consenting adults. I’m uninterested in telling people how they should live, or listening to others prescribe how people should live, which is why the current incarnation of the Republican party in the United States alienates me. When it comes to this topic, not vaccinating your children doesn’t meet my standard of “if it’s not hurting anyone.” Other than the obvious argument that it’s hurting your child, it’s also hurting everyone else’s children unintentionally, by reducing herd immunity and allowing diseases such as measles to make a comeback. This argument is scientifically accurate, which is the closest thing we can come to as agreed-upon truth. You can reference this book for all the medical professionals who make that very argument. Additionally, I believe that the current Republican party expresses the greatest number of unscientific beliefs, which are dangerous in health and governing.

That all beings said, I find the author’s digressions into attacking the Republican party in this book to be distracting at best. I do agree with him on a lot of those points, but it isn’t like there aren’t liberal crystal healing believers out there that believe, wholeheartedly, that vaccines are poison. If the author wanted to discuss how conservatives in America have adopted anti-science views, that’s fine, but it should have been its own book—and not snarky little jabs in this one. My reason for this is any perception of bias, breeds suspicion, and creates an opening to discount everything else in the book. The topic of are vaccines life-saving medicine or are they poison that causes autism in children—is too important a topic to be divided on the table of Republican ideals vs. Democrat ideals. This isn’t something we, as a society, can treat as there are no wrong answers here. There are absolutely wrong answers here, and people’s lives are on the line. 

Parting thoughts:

Watching a child descend into autism has to be one of the all-time greatest hellish scenarios. To see your son or daughter make progress, just like any other child, then to one day stop making eye-contact and lose verbal skills, and in the more profound cases to become nearly entirely mentally disabled is the stuff of nightmare.

I pride myself on being a scientifically minded person and would like to believe even if faced with such a trial that I’d hold to that value. But I’m not a hundred percent certain that I would if I lived that experience, and it’s why I’m uncomfortable with people calling out anti-vaxxers as crazy, via meme or otherwise. They aren’t all stupid, and people aren’t perfect, often we form opinions internally based on emotion and nothing else.

Sadly it’s very easy to flippantly call someone a nutjob, especially when you don’t have a kid that has autism. Sure their arguments don’t hold up to scientific scrutiny but think about how hard it would be to hear, “well, we don’t really know why your son/daughter has this condition, and there is very little chance for improvement,” right after getting your child vaccinated. That association is right there—but as the famous phrase goes—correlation does not imply causation. It’s easy to remember, but it flies in the face of all our human instincts, and instincts have served us well for countless thousands of years—until you get to the modern era, where they aren’t designed to operate.

Our ancestors could look at a bush, see the leaves rustle, and then a lion would pop out and eat their cousin. That day forward, they’d see leaves rustle and high tail it, teach their children to high tail it in that situation, and survive, never realizing that ninety-nine percent of the time the leaves rustle because the wind was blowing. Living in the modern world is a lot like that cranked up, but now there are a lot of situations where simple avoidance without understanding, won’t help you, it can actually harm you, or kill you and your loved ones. The only defense is gaining knowledge, and part of acquiring new understanding is finding out that our human intuition isn’t very good at all—it was just good enough to keep us alive in a primitive environment. Add a little complexity, and our instincts become nothing more than dangerously un-thought out predispositions.     

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