Media sensationalism risks public health


According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 20 measles outbreaks in the U.S. between Jan. 1 and Oct. 31 of this year, spread mainly among non-vaccinated individuals. These numbers are among the highest recorded since 1997.

The practice of vaccinating children has been on decline since a 1998 study from the lab of Andrew Wakefield was published claiming that vaccinations cause developmental disorders in children. The article was later retracted when it was discovered to be a dishonest study that violated research ethics.

Many hypotheses have been proposed to explain a link between childhood vaccinations and autism, including the measles vaccine and a vaccine called thimersosal.

The only study showing any association between autism and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was the aforementioned 1998 study, which was not surprisingly funded by lawyers and parents wishing to sue vaccine manufacturers. That was not the only conflict of interest Wakefield did not disclose at the time of publication. The year before the study was published, Wakefield patented a measles vaccine with the potential to replace the combined vaccine that was customarily given.

Despite the small sample size and far-reaching conclusions in Wakefield’s publication, the media vastly publicized it. Vaccination rates dropped substantially as parents were frightened into believing that vaccinating their children put them at severe risk for Autism.

The media has a tendency toward sensationalism, in which it gives exaggerated coverage to insignificant content. “Media exploits vaccine scares firstly to promote fear and pity among their readers which moves media product,” said investigative journalist Brian Deer.

We are still paying the costs to public health of the media’s over-dramatic coverage of the single, fraudulent paper.