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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vaccines, Autism, Media, and the Internet

Elena Conis writes at Salon about the development of the vaccine-autism story.
All the while, parents continued to suspect vaccines. In part, this was likely due to the fact that the media didn’t let go of the story; scholars have shown that public concern about a risk increases as news coverage of the risk increases—no matter how small, or unproven, that risk may be. Moreover, as vaccine worries were being amplified in the news, the rise of the Internet created yet another forum for parents’ suspicions to circulate and gain momentum. Americans in the early 2000s were flocking to the Internet for all sorts of reasons, including the quest for health and medical information. Physicians and health experts lamented that patients’ web research was changing the traditional office visit, and not for the better. But for the parents of autistic children, the online world was a limitless source of information that empowered them to understand and manage their children’s needs. A couple in Massachusetts said they spent five hours a day researching autism tips online. A California mom connected with other parents of autistic children online and learned about their successes and failures. Still others went online to diagnose their own children: “[We] put [the kids] to bed and then got on the Web to do the research,” said a mother in Illinois. “By the end of the night, we knew [our son] Weston had autism.”
The vaccine-autism debate also persisted because it was, in many ways, the perfect story for what sociologist Ulrich Beck dubbed the “risk society.” Concern with risk, Beck argued, is our modern condition. Americans and citizens of other affluent nations are at once acutely conscious of risk and pessimistic about the state’s and institutions’ abilities to manage risks. They are, as a result, plagued by uncertainty; since risk can’t be dependably identified or avoided, one has to assume it is everywhere. This mentality is connected to the increasingly protective form of child rearing prevalent in countries such as the United States, where the economic and emotional value of children continues its upward climb; safety gear and safety precautions for children—from car seats to organic baby food to flame-retardant pajamas—are ubiquitous and ever growing in number. In such a society, the media is a critical venue for identifying, communicating, and evaluating risks. The media certainly embraced this role in the debate over vaccines, covering it attentively, staying focused on the vaccine-autism link long after scientists had dismissed it, and giving voice to parental fears that spoke directly to a lack of confidence in government’s—and industry’s—ability to protect their children from omnipresent risks.