Just in time for the national roll-out of the new H1N1 flu vaccine, Wired Magazine and the Atlantic have weighed in on the ongoing vaccine war: Wired has a profile of Paul Offit, a vaccine researcher and pediatrician who has consistently spoken out in favor of vaccination and pointed to the lack of evidence linking vaccines and autism; the Atlantic checks in with a piece questioning the science suggesting that flu vaccines and antiviral drugs prevent people from dying.
Both articles have elicited heated debate all over the Web: Amy Wallace, who wrote Wired’s piece, excerpted below, has received vitriolic criticism and attacks from vaccine opponents, setting records for page views.
Describing death threats and attacks on Offit, Wallace writes:
So what has this award-winning 58-year-old scientist done to elicit such venom? He boldly states — in speeches, in journal articles, and in his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets — that vaccines do not cause autism or autoimmune disease or any of the other chronic conditions that have been blamed on them. He supports this assertion with meticulous evidence. And he calls to account those who promote bogus treatments for autism — treatments that he says not only don’t work but often cause harm.
While the Wired article has been attacked by advocates, the Atlantic’s article has been slammed by several blogs written by scientists. The authors, Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, reply to their critics here (scroll down). The scientists take issue with their argument that the scientific evidence does not support the use of the flu vaccine and antiviral medications like Tamiflu, detailed below
Brownlee and Lenzer ask:
… what if everything we think we know about fighting influenza is wrong? What if flu vaccines do not protect people from dying—particularly the elderly, who account for 90 percent of deaths from seasonal flu? And what if the expensive antiviral drugs that the government has stockpiled over the past few years also have little, if any, power to reduce the number of people who die or are hospitalized? The U.S. government—with the support of leaders in the public-health and medical communities—has put its faith in the power of vaccines and antiviral drugs to limit the spread and lethality of swine flu. Other plans to contain the pandemic seem anemic by comparison. Yet some top flu researchers are deeply skeptical of both flu vaccines and antivirals.
This debate over vaccination doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon. For critics, vaccines have become a touchstone for cultural anxieties and a not entirely unjustified mistrust of government and big business. No matter what evidence researchers provide supporting the safety of vaccination and its clear benefit to global public health, opponents remain convinced that the vaccine industry is tainted and biased by commercial pressures and that anyone who supports vaccination must have financial motives.
But for those who are concerned about health and safety, these articles and the related discussions offer a fascinating view of the controversy. If we are to have a rational conversation about the best way to fight flu, infectious disease and autism, we need to recognize that these are scientific questions and use the best research—not the data that supports our preconceived views—to answer them.