When my oldest son, now almost 9, was born, we faced enormous pressure by some family members not to vaccinate him. We read up on the vaccine debate, tossed and turned many a night, consulted experts, then ultimately decided that we had a responsibility, first and foremost, to protect him from the figuartive and literal ills of society.
We did what we thought was right for our sons, and respect that some people do not feel that vaccinating is the right choice for their children.
That said, our choice, and that of many other parents in the country, would have been much easier had writer Seth Mnookin published The Panic Virus
(2011 Simon and Schuster, $26.99 US) back then. His powerful book tells, according to the cover, "the true story of medicine, science and fear" by delving deeper into the vaccine/autism controversy than any publication has to date.
It is also a cautionary tale about what can happen if corporations, government entities, etc. do not understand the impact of proper communications, messaging and transparency. It tells the reader what can happen when emotion gets in the way of facts - the heart trumps the head.
Some points Mnookin makes in The Panic Virus that could benefit PR and Marketing Pros as we navigate an imperfect world where issues aren't always black and white:
- A deflated economy and other matters of "social unrest," such as those in the UK in the mid-70's, leaves an open door for people to feel victimized, especially by their government. Mnookin explains that due to a 1 million+ unemployment and the "seemingly imminent threat of everything for a nuclear war to a world without oil led to a nihilistic disdain for the traditional forces ruling society." (61) This, in-turn, caused the British press to seize upon a study reporting that three-dozen kids "purported to have suffered neurological problems following DPT vaccination." The media mirrors the society in which it exists - if the people mistrust, the media reflects that. Why do you think the paparazzi are so bad now? We ask for it.
- Biased reporting perpetrates myths and untruths until they become the gospel. Mnookin remarks on a special that aired on the DC-NBC affiliate WRC-TV in spring of 1982, "Vaccine Roulette." Reporter Lea Thompson focused on families with terribly sick children that she connected to having become ill from a DPT vaccine. She focused on only one study that stated that adverse reactions to that vaccine could be as high as 1 in 700. She paraded statistics and experts who said vaccines make kids sick. (69) Only the JAMA looked further into her claims to find, "a dispatch rife with mistakes and misrepresentations." Thompson had an agenda and she made the information fit it. And people bought it. Happens all the time.
- "Vaccine Roulette" was re-aired and information from the report was published because journalists were lazy and didn't try to do the footwork themselves. In fact, Mnookin reports, British newspapers had access to information for 10 years that indicated Andrew Wakefield, the former medical doctor who is credited with tying the issue of vaccinations to Autism, was paid to examine the children he used in his study as part of a lawsuit against drug manufacturers. They also failed to uncover the fact that Wakefield had applied for a patent for a split MMR vaccine. (236) I don't know how many times I've seen this happen in recent times (ahem - false reports that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was killed in Tucson) but we must demand more out of the media and up and coming journalists. Wikipedia and the Internet are not sources!!
- People need a reason for everything. Story after story chronicled in The Panic Virus from parents who blame vaccines for the illnesses that befall their children end in the phrase, "...I just know it was the MMR shot that caused my child's autism." He talks about women citing their mother's instinct that the autism was caused by vaccinations, people searching for answers in the Internet and, upon discovering the hundreds of websites linking autism to the MMR vaccine, see the clouds part and hear angels sing because they FINALLY found out the cause. Never mind that there is no scientific link, never has been. Never mind that unfortunately the last in the series of MMR shots comes at about the same age that children begin to exhibit the signs of autism. Never mind that some of those parents have been hearing from doctors for a few years that their child might have learning disability. Never mind that the child's head size tracked large from birth. People want to find a cause, a reason, something to blame. Because then, they don't have to consider that sometimes terrible things just happen. As PR practitioners, we need to know that, and to tell our clients that - before they become THAT reason.
- The more "conventional society" eschews an idea, concept, claim, person, the more sub-cultures in society will flock to it/them. Mnookin's example: "On Monday, May 24, 2010, Andrew Wakefield's name was officially struck off of the U.K.'s medical register, which left him without a job or the ability to practice his chosen profession. Later that week, he received a standing ovation at the AutismOne conference in Chicago, where he also headlined a rally, gave two presentations, took part in an Age of Autism panel, posed for pictures with Bob Sears, and held a book signing. Wakefield might have been a lightning rod for negative attention from state medical boards and public health agencies, but it appeared as if his support among his core followers was as strong as ever" (304). As corporate communicators, as community relations experts, as stakeholder managers, we have to realize that we can't change everyone's opinion. But what we have to do - what we must do - is strive to educate as many people as we can, using multiple approaches, to try to catch those people, who like me, were confused about the issue and just looking for answers. You can't reach those on the fringe no matter how hard you try - what you have to strive to do is connect with those people who have questions and legitimate concerns and show them the science on a level they understand.
As a practitioner who focuses one aspect of my business on issues management, I was overwhelmed by the things I learned - or related to from past experiences - in Mnookin's book. The concepts of commuincation and media engagement aren't rocket science, but they can be difficult to understand when explained in the abstract. The Panic Virus illustrates how these concepts work and what happens when they fail in one giant case study.
As a communicator I appreciate the wisdom gained from reading this book and legitimization of some theories I'd had regarding emotions/science for a long time. As a writer, I am awed by the amount of research Mnookin put into this book and amazed by the remarkable prose he uses to continually engage the reader. As a mother, I am thankful that Seth Mnookin took the risks he did to write this book, and hung the virtual target on his back upon its publication. He's saved many parents from endless worry and the very real chance that their child could suffer from a decision NOT made.