Will This Doctor Hurt Your Baby?

Thanks to celebrity anti-vaccine crusaders like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Children’s Hospital doctor and vaccine inventor Paul Offit gets death threats from parents frantic about autism — and worse. He’s had enough. He’s taking his critics on

“I mean, is that — is that child abuse?” Offit asks. “Is it negligence on the part of the parent? It certainly sounds like it. But, you know, I just don’t think you could get that — I would be surprised if that ever happened in this country.”

He means that no legislator would ever pass a law like that, for obvious reasons. And Offit doesn’t really think that non-vaccinating parents are child abusers. It’s just a thought experiment. A hypothetical. The other side can put forth its hypotheticals, so why can’t he?

That’s what Autism’s False Prophets is about. It’s a dramatization of a different set of risks — the risks of believing wrong things about vaccines. Also, the book doesn’t just show that the anti-vaccine activists are wrong; it attempts to explain why, in our culture, they tend to win. It’s everything Offit’s been thinking and feeling about the culture in the past 10 years, with the anger and cutting edge of bitterness taken out (in part by Offit’s editor, who “made me a nicer guy”), distilled down to witheringly restrained prose. It marks Offit’s transformation from a germ-slayer to a quack-slayer, because it’s fundamentally a book about people, and institutions, and the media, and lawyers, and, well, everything; and it unfolds like a mystery novel, beginning with the tale of the man who started the whole vaccine-autism panic back in 1998, a British gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield.

During Offit’s talk, he gets a question about MMR and launches into the Wakefield saga. “Right, so,” he says. “Wakefield, this British gastroenterologist … who believed — and I mean that in the way that people believe in religious things — he believed that the MMR vaccine caused autism. And that was wrong. He’s certainly been shown to be wrong.”

“But what was the basis?” asks a young woman in the audience.

Offit says, “He made. It. Up.”

Everyone in the room laughs, hard. It’s the laughter of tension release — not mean or spiteful laughter. It’s the cathartic laughter of people who aren’t allowed to say this stuff in their everyday jobs, but think it all the time. “He was on 60 Minutes,” Offit continues. “Ed Bradley looked at him and said, ‘Would you give [your] children the MMR vaccine?’ This guy is good-looking. He’s very verbal. He sort of has that ruddy complexion. He has an English accent, which we all die for in this country. And he said, ‘I certainly would not.’ Quote. ‘I certainly would not. I would separate the vaccine into its three component parts’ — springing ex cathedra from his head. …