NB – Dr Offit is donating all profits from this book to autism research.
So. Here’s the short review: holy shit, this is a good book, you need to buy it and pass it on. Make your local library stock a copy or three.
Here’s the longer review.
The book begins – after a dedication that made me grin from ear to ear – with a quote so acutely apposite that its like Professor Szasz said it to perfectly sum up the book and the last ten years:
When religion was strong and science weak,
men mistook magic for medicine.
Now, when science is strong and religion weak,
men mistake medicine for magic.
I knew Dr Offit got a lot of hate mail. What I didn’t know was the extent and the utter viciousness of it. From the books prologue:
Whilst sitting in my office, I got a phone call from a man who said that he and I shared the same concerns. We both wanted what was best for our children. He wanted what was best for his son, giving his name and age. And he presumed I wanted what was best for my children, giving their names and ages and where they went to school. His implication was clear. He knew where my children went to school. Then he hung up.
I can empathise. I’ve had cowards directly or indirectly threaten my kids too. We know who I’m referring to.
Offit refuses to feel sorry for himself and goes on to describe in painstaking detail the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of the two main vaccine/autism ideas: MMR and thimerosal. He paints a vivid and (in my experience) completely accurate portrait of Andrew Wakefield as a vainglorious but weak king who simply doesn’t have the courage to admit his own wrongdoing. Offit recounts an anecdote from one time Wakefield supporter, John March. The setting is a meeting between March, lawyer Richard Barr and Andrew Wakefield, called to discuss their litigation strategy.
[March]…presented his data….he told them there was no difference between the children with autism and controls, he suddenly found that the meeting had moved on to a different subject. It was a Damascene conversion for him. He realised that Wakefield could not hear negative results.
Offit (rightly) does not spare Wakefield at all. This is the man who is literally, the architect of the whole idea that vaccines cause autism. Offit quotes Wakefield in an interview with US show ’60 minutes’ in 2001:
I would have enormous regrets if [my theories] were wrong and there were complications or fatalities from measles.
In Feb this year, the Gaurdian reported:
There were 971 cases of measles in England and Wales in 2007 in contrast to 740 the previous year — a rise of over 30% and the highest jump since records began in 1995, said the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
Two teenagers have died of measles in the UK. One in 2006. One in 2008. Are there any signs of Wakefield’s profound regrets?
Offit goes on to study the thiomersal hypothesis from the beginning of the noughties to 2007 and the Cedillo hearings.
It is a strange feeling reading an account of events that you have been so intimately involved in talking about for the last five years. From the bizarre Bernard et al paper and the outright insistence of certain writers and founders of autism/anti-vaccine groups that autism was just another name for mercury poisoning, through Kathleen’s demolition of the Geier’s credibility and science, all the way to Jenny McCarthy’s Oprah showboating.
The main feeling I got was how much a lot of this was now _history_ – as Offit clearly and devastatingly argues, the science has spoken. Vaccines don’t cause autism. And as I blogged about recently, it seems pretty clear that the US public are (rightly) more concerned about the possible resurgence of killer diseases such as measles than they are to keep flogging the dead horse of autism anti-vaccinationism.
But my all time favourite part of the book was the final section. My friends were interviewed at length and the clearest feeling I had from this section was – you threw everything at us. Your money, your influence, your political power. We’re still standing. You threatened us with legal action – we’re still standing. You called us and our children names and threatened their well being. We’re still standing.
Paul Offit has written a real page-turner of a book here. One that should matter to every single autistic person and every single parent of an autistic person. Ultimately, its a book written to support autistic people. Why? because it seeks to close the door on a debate with no scientific merit. Will it do that? Possibly not, we are not dealing with rational people by and large. But what it will do is once and for all dispel the notion that ‘the parents’ who believe vaccines cause autism must be listened to solely because they are parents. Amen to that.