A few weeks ago, I had a little free time and I immediately dug into Deadly Choices: How the Anti-vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Dr. Paul Offitt.
Let’s be honest here…I went into this book expecting to love it 🙂 And I’m happy to say I basically wasn’t disappointed. Besides being a noted vaccine researcher (if your kids don’t get rotavirus, you can probably thank him), Dr. Offitt is also an excellent writer.
I know a fair amount about vaccines but I knew very little about how the anti-vaccine movement got started, so this book was perfect for me. It starts out in Washington DC in 1982, when a local TV station aired a documentary called DPT: Vaccine Roulette. (I’m from the DC suburbs and when I told her about this, my mother recoiled in horror and said “I think I saw that!”)
Many of the anti-vaccine leaders of today saw that documentary and Offitt follows their paths as they move deeper and deeper into pseudoscience. He shows how their confusions and misunderstanding of how science and medicine work led them astray.
However, one of my favorite parts of the book is when Offitt praises a vaccine critic who actually did help make vaccines better, unlike the Barbara Loe Fishers and Jenny McCarthys. You see, for many years, the polio vaccine was a “live” vaccine, which meant that there was a small chance that in taking the vaccine…you might get polio. In the beginning, the tradeoff was worth it because polio was such a big killer and maimer.
But as we basically wiped out polio in the United States, there was another polio vaccine created, this one containing no live polio in it, so it was impossible for it to cause the disease. The problem is that live vaccine was cheaper and easier to administer, so everyone was essentially too lazy to switch.
Until this one kid got polio and his dad fought back. He went to Congress, he went to everybody, and he got the polio vaccine switched over. So if your kids don’t get polio from the polio vaccine, you can thank him! As Offitt points out, that man is a hero. He looked at the science, he realized the problem could be fixed without taking away the vaccine protection from everybody, and he worked with scientists and politicians to fix it. Good stuff.
(What can I say? I get geeky about vaccines, okay? Don’t judge me.)
One thing I found a bit disconcerting in the book is that Offitt tends to jump around in time, going from DC in 1982 back to England of several centuries ago and then back to the present. But once I got used to it, I began to see how he was tying together all the threads of the anti-vaccine movement.
And there was so much fascinating information. Did you know that the smallpox vaccine became mandatory in England in the mid-1800s? And thus sprang up groups claiming that if you gave your children the smallpox vaccine (gathered from cows with cowpox), they would turn into cows! They had pamphlets showing children with hooves and horns and such.
And as I laughed at that image, Offitt pointed out that the claims made by today’s anti-vaccine movement are just as biologically impossible, they just sound better because they’re cloaked in fancy-sounding medical terminology.
Orac’s review does make the excellent point that the book glosses over the evil of Andrew Wakefield (I won’t dignify him with “Dr.”), who imagined the link between the MMR shot and autism in order to sell his own vaccine. The reason this book doesn’t say much about Wakefield is, of course, because Offitt covered that thoroughly in his last book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. (Which I haven’t read yet, but is on my list.)
I think Orac is right, though, that this book should probably have included more about Wakefield, just because he’s done so much harm and there are so many people who still think he’s a legitimate researcher.
(This dude did unnecessary spinal taps on children. ::shudders:: He faked data. He lied about his results. And he’s responsible for children dying from measles, mumps, and rubella. I find myself hoping that hell exists, just so he can go there.)
Despite my few caveats, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you’re a medical history geek like me, but also if you’ve ever found yourself worried about your kids’ (or your own) vaccinations. The anti-vaccine movement has been so effective at sounding legitimate that it’s easy for folks without a medical degree (hi!) to get confused. Offitt does a fabulous job of debunking anti-vaccine claims with hard data and good science. My hero!