A London researcher was the first to assert that the combination measles-mumps-rubella vaccine known as MMR caused autism in children. Following this "discovery," a handful of parents declared that a mercury-containing preservative in several vaccines was responsible for the disease. If mercury caused autism, they reasoned, eliminating it from a child's system should treat the disorder. Consequently, a number of untested alternative therapies arose, and, most tragically, in one such treatment, a doctor injected a five-year-old autistic boy with a chemical in an effort to cleanse him of mercury, which stopped his heart instead.
Children with autism have been placed on stringent diets, subjected to high-temperature saunas, bathed in magnetic clay, asked to swallow digestive enzymes and activated charcoal, and injected with various combinations of vitamins, minerals, and acids. Instead of helping, these therapies can hurt those who are most vulnerable, and particularly in the case of autism, they undermine childhood vaccination programs that have saved millions of lives. An overwhelming body of scientific evidence clearly shows that childhood vaccines are safe and does not cause autism. Yet widespread fear of vaccines on the part of parents persists.
In this book, Paul A. Offit, a national expert on vaccines, challenges the modern-day false prophets who have so egregiously misled the public and exposes the opportunism of the lawyers, journalists, celebrities, and politicians who support them. Offit recounts the history of autism research and the exploitation of this tragic condition by advocates and zealots. He considers the manipulation of science in the popular mediaand the courtroom, and he explores why society is susceptible to the bad science and risky therapies put forward by many antivaccination activists.
Attempting to answer the enormous frustration and unhappiness of parents "tired of watching their autistic children improve at rates so slow it's hard to tell if they are improving at all," pediatrics professor and vaccine researcher Offit explores purported causes and cures. Examining false approaches like facilitated communication ("a massive, nationwide delusion") and secretin injections ("no better than salt water"), and mistaken theories of origin (the MMR vaccine, thimerosol), Offit pleads with journalists to resist the lure of "dramatic headlines, advertising dollars, and ratings" rather than report an unconfirmed or untrustworthy study. The only worthwhile studies, Offit purports, are those meeting three criteria: "transparency of the funding source, internal consistency of the data, and reproducibility of the findings." Overall, Offit's text seems unbalanced: though he takes on the "$40-billion-a-year" alternative medicine industry, he's largely silent on the much larger pharmaceutical industry; and after 10 chapters of debunking the "false prophets," there's just one brief chapter on what is known about autism causes and cures. A thorough and convincing debunker, however, Offit will likely leave parents still hunting for information, albeit better armed to find it.
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