Monday, April 07, 2008

Autism and Vaccines--Science vs. Celebrity

In a previous post I talked about some of the potential dangers of managing information in a Web 2.0 world. A colleague suggested the controversy over whether childhood vaccinations cause autism as an example of how challenging it is to talk about these issues in a Web2.0 world.

In general the medical and scientific community maintains that there is no definite evidence that there is no connection between vaccinations and autism.

However, there are numerous websites and celebrities who have taken up this cause and continue to assert that the scientists and doctor's are wrong. Here is a sampling of the some recent news, blogs, etc:

Jenny McCarthy's view that diet helped her son recover from autism.

Alison Rose Levy in the autism dilemma writes,

The underlying fear and anger towards these parents suggests that it's somehow heretical to question any proffering of scientific "proof" even when it squares off with experience--in this case, parents' tragic and oft repeated experience of watching hundreds of thousands of children immediately deteriorate upon vaccination.

As these two different and valid kinds of evidence collide, the collision should awaken the spirit of scientific inquiry. Instead it's viewed as a threat.

David Kirby critiques the Center for Disease Control's studies regarding the safety of vaccines.
In the same article he also comments on his reaction to physicians and other scientists who have challenged some of his assertions in previous articles noting:

I get nasty emails from some pediatricians, and the number-one complaint I get from them is that, because of people like me, they must now "waste" (their word, not mine) precious billing hours talking to layperson parents about vaccine science.
This is a reminder that even when you join in the discussion you are going to get reactions from those whose views you may disagree with. The Web 2.0 is a two-way street and there will be give and take on both sides.

The CDC has also continued to try and get the message out about advice to parents regarding vaccines and its efforts to continue to study the issue.

One of the most complicated parts of this discussion is that the research in this area is not definitive and there are new questions. Terry Mauro comments on this issue in her review of the debate stating:

The research done thus far mostly indicates that more research needs to be done -- into the causes of autism, and into the possibilities of vaccine injury. As that research continues, so do the firefights between those who believe fervently that vaccinations damaged their children, and those who believe fervently that vaccinations are an important tool for public health that we dare not challenge. The result is a Holy War that is played out daily in medical circles and the media and the Internet and support groups and message boards and anywhere people with strong opinions gather to yell at each other. The stakes couldn't be higher, on either side -- which is what makes uncertainty so unbearable.
Most researchers and professionals are likely to look at this debate and come to the conclusion that they wouldn't want to be involved in this wide open discussion with no rules that is the hallmark of the Web2.0. It is unclear, if after all the words, that this discussion is moving towards useful outcomes for either parents who want this information and scientists and policy makers who want to inform the public and protect the public.

At least part of what we need to have is some new ways of deriving clarity from these discussions. Are these new "filtering" tools. Are they some types of integrative processes? This type of process is not going away. What we need are some better ways to manage it.

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