Friday, April 18, 2008

Lessons for Educating Parents from the Autism-Vaccine Debate

I have been following the debate about whether or not vaccines cause autism in the blogs and in the media. You can find current links to these topics in my list on the right hand side of the page.

My main interest is how this debate is unfolding in the discussions among the various interests in this debate. There are lessons here about how issues like this are played out in this new media environment and those who are interested in educating parents and providing scientific information on policy and practice issues may be able to learn how to effectively communicate in a Web 2.0 media world.

In this post I look at how various organizations and individuals are contributing to this discussion.

I began to get an idea about what people are doing by searching Google with the phrase "early warning signs of autism," a topic that I think would be of interest to parents who are concerned about the development of their children. I followed the first five links on the page and search the websites for "autism-vaccine" to see what they said, if anything, about this topic. Here is what I found:

Some Examples of Websites on Vaccines and Autism

Site # 1: Bridges4kids is an independent website that identifies professional educators as the sources of the material. They write, "Bridges4Kids was founded in 2002 by Deborah K. Canja and Jackie D. Igafo-Te'o after realizing the need for a comprehensive system of support on the web for ALL children."

This site had 67 links to articles on "autism-vaccines." In general this site does not seem to produce its own content, but provides links to news articles and other material about topics of interest to parents. The editors of the website provide no information about how they select information to include on the website. Here are some examples: The first article is a link to an organization that is organized to publicize the dangers of mercury used in vaccines. (This is one the suspected links to autism.)

The second link is to a news article from the Baltimore Sun in 2003 that summarizes a Danish study that provides evidence that vaccines (and mercury) are not linked to autism.

The 3rd link is to a news article from the Post-Dispatch in 2004 that reports on research from a non-university group that finds that there is a link between vaccines and autism.

The next link is the ABC News which I skipped and then the next link is Science Daily which is descibed by the editors as
one of the Internet's leading online magazines and Web portals devoted to science, technology, and medicine. The free, advertising-supported service brings you breaking news about the latest discoveries and hottest research projects in everything from astrophysics to zoology."

As you might guess this website returns many stories on the topic-- in fact 362 stories. A reminder about the media coverage this topic is receiving in the media.

The next link is to a YouTube video with the title of Early Sign of Autism-- Stacking Blocks.
There are over 200 comments mostly from parents and siblings of children of autism that note the similarities between the child on the video and their own experiences. The video is authored by aware4autism who describes herself as a parent who is committed to helping people understand autistic children.

The link on Google is which "was created in 1999 by the Rotary Club of Santa Monica with active participation by Rotarians Robert and Jeanne Segal following the tragic suicide of their daughter Morgan." The site covers many family and child related topics.

There is one link with the terms "autism vaccines. The article covers a variety of issues of concern to parents about autism including early warning signs, possible causes of autism and more. There is a section on the vaccine issue. Here is the first paragraph:

"When it comes to autism, no topic is more controversial than childhood vaccinations. At the center of this controversy is thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative once commonly used in vaccines to prevent bacterial and fungal contamination. The concern is that exposure to thimerosal may lead to mercury poisoning and autism. Scientific research, however, does not support the theory that childhood vaccinations cause autism."

The article goes on to note all the major government and scientific societies that have concluded that there is no link between vaccines and autism.


At least these first five websites generally do not report some of the more extreme views about vaccines causing autism. The Bridges4kids and Science Daily site just make links to many news articles and other information without any filtering or guidance. The reader must make his or her own judgments about the validity of the information.

The HelpGuide provides a thoughtful summary of the views of most scientists on the topic. It is written in a very readable form and has a feel of "professionalism."

The YouTube video is an interesting link for parents. Here is a chance to see several videos. This could be an interesting way to illustrate some of the characteristics of children with autism, but there is little to guide the viewer to see the specific characteristics.

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