AND NOW, THE AOA AWARDS FOR BAD MEDIA STORIES
By ANNE DACHEL
I was asked to write on the worst autism coverage in the news over the past year. At first, that seemed like a daunting task. There were so many times over the last year when people in the news wrote absolutely outrageous articles on autism, especially on the cause of autism. It was so hard to continually read articles that casually said that while autism affects one in every 150 children and one in every 94 boys, there's no need to worry. It's always been like this, we just didn't have doctors smart enough to know autism when they saw it. (This claim is especially ludicrous considering the American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for pediatricians to do autism checks so these kids aren't missed. What happened to the idea that doctors were already doing a great job finding kids with autism?)
There were a lot of stories in the running for the worst. Then came the recent New Jersey decision to mandate an additional four vaccines for children in that state. The flu shot was included in that increase and immediately it drew national attention because almost all flu vaccines available contain a horrendous level of mercury. This vaccine would be required for kids to attend preschool and day care in the state.
The collective coverage of the vaccine mandate in New Jersey, especially on the flu vaccine, wins the worst coverage award, hands down. In a state where they already top the nation with an autism rate of one in every 94 children -- specifically, one in every 60 boys -- officials show no alarm over the shocking numbers and even less interest in the charge that vaccines are responsible.
So how did the press respond to this controversial move? They did the same thing they've been doing for years whenever issue was raised: Most reports told us once again that only parents link vaccines to autism and that no science backs their claim. These stories rarely noted the actual New Jersey autism rate, even though they assured us vaccines don't cause it. Most stories said nothing about mandating even more exposure to a known neurotoxin.
I couldn't find any story that raised questions about the process of mandating these vaccines. A handful of people on the New Jersey Health Council recommended the new vaccines and Health Commissioner Fred Jacobs approved them.
It's easy to cite examples of the glowing reports on the benefits of mandating more vaccines, especially one against the flu. These same articles glossed any link between vaccines and autism. It usually was done with a quick line or two about lots of studies that couldn't find any connection. It was only parents who claim vaccines cause autism, and not many parents. It was usually "some parents" or a "few parents." Most reporters gave the last word to health officials who predictably showed no concern over mandating more vaccines.
There are plenty of examples of the pathetic coverage given the New Jersey mandate to chose from. In the Herald News story "Parents Back Flu Shot Order Danielle Shapiro reported on lots of good things about the new vaccines and cited doctors to back up her up. She began her piece telling us about a mom already getting a flu shot for her son. It was complete with a photo. She wrote, "Most parents support the measure, knowing how quickly germs spread among children in schools and from there to everyone else. Several medical professionals said the requirements make for sound health policy."
Convincing comments were included from medical professionals. We hear from Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, and Susan Ortega, an advanced pediatric nurse who oversees health care for the roughly 3,500 preschoolers in the Paterson district.
The naysayer was also included. We were told, "But at least one parent worried that the many vaccines children already have to get may be connected to autism and is opposed to a state mandate that dictates how they treat their children."
It was interesting that Shapiro wrote only about "the preservatives that some worry are connected to autism." The preservatives? Saying "preservatives" sounds a lot nicer than using words like mercury. Shapiro either consciously or unconsciously skirted the most heated controversy in medicine today. She did a lot to convince me that coverage of the NJ vaccine coverage deserved to be called the worst.
The article, "Flu shots for preschoolers / Dose of sense, Flu Shots for Preschoolers found on the Press of Atlantic City site, is also to be included. No one is named as the writer of this piece and it's about as one-sided as you can get. Thimerosal is only in "low doses" and "trace amounts." It's called "a preservative," and the word mercury never appeared in the piece. It seems the there is "absolutely no convincing evidence of harm by the low doses of thimerosal in some flu vaccination." The CDC is cited as a source and those in opposition are dismissed as merely being "a vocal minority of parents."
Pesky parents were again mentioned in "NJ parents try to block vaccine mandate" HERE by Linda Johnson of the Associated Press. She wrote that "several parents noted that unlike other common vaccines, most of the influenza vaccine available contains mercury, a toxic heavy metal that has been widely blamed by parents as a cause of autism, despite the lack of any such evidence." No reason for anyone to worry and the health commissioner called it "a great day for public health in New Jersey."
I must also include that they were some the good stories out. In "Vaccine mandates spark ire by Michael Rispoli in the Home News Tribune" HERE, he reported, "So many of the parents said the vaccinations do more harm than good - specifically linking the mercury-based vaccine preservative Thimerosal to the rise of autism cases in the country," and he added a comment by Maureen Drummond, founder of the Network Organization for Vaccine Awareness and Choice: "We have traded off communicable disease for chronic, degenerative disease" ... According to the national Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, 18,100 cases of serious vaccine-related side effects were reported in 2007. Since 1990, 208,419 have been reported.
Elise Young at the Record in Hackensack, NJ, wrote "Avoiding vaccines will be difficult" HERE She noted, "One in 94 children here is on the autism spectrum." She also found a real live doctor on the side of parents: "Dr. Lawrence D. Rosen, a Hackensack pediatrician, said that in general, immunizations are a good idea. But he has deep reservations about the preservatives in question, and he doesn't agree with the state's latest mandate. 'It does not take into account individual choice or individual medical issues," Rosen said.
And reporter Bob Groves in "New Jersey becomes first state to require flu shots for preschoolers" HERE also quoted Dr. Rosen: "It's a disastrous decision. This is embarrassing for the state to be the first one to make this a mandate."
I was grateful to see some good along with the bad. They included the other side to counter all the official pronouncements, but so much of the coverage that appeared around the country failed to tell us anything about the real issues involved. For this mandate to get such support in the press, despite all the questions being raised is defies common sense. Reporters allowed officials to again say that while some link vaccines to autism, we don't believe it and to prove it, we're adding even more shots to the childhood schedule!
The reporting on this is worthy of "THE WORST."
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.