Vaccine Scare Stories

We know why some parents are hesitant to get their kids vaccinated and protected against vaccine preventable diseases.

“In today’s world, smallpox has been eradicated due to a successful vaccination program and vaccines have effectively controlled many other significant causes of morbidity and mortality. Consequently, fear has shifted from many vaccine-preventable diseases to fear of the vaccines.”

Marian Siddiqui et al on the Epidemiology of vaccine hesitancy in the United States

These vaccine-hesitant parents have become more afraid of vaccines than of the vaccine-preventable diseases that they have never seen – thanks to effective vaccine programs.

Although there have always been folks around pushing misinformation about vaccines, stoking those fears, there is no denying that vaccine scare stories in the media have played a very big role in the history of the modern anti-vaccine movement.

Vaccine Scare Stories

The media does a good job in helping vaccine controversies either get started or at least spreading to a lot of people.

In addition to helping to publicize the controversy in the first place, you are likely see false balance in their reporting, making it seem like many experts believe that these are real controversies.

“Many recent immunization programs have suffered setbacks from immunization scares. Children have been needlessly put into danger by frightened parents that refused immunization for their children after “scare stories” about particular vaccines.”

WHO on the Impact of rumours and crises

This was certainly true during the “media’s MMR hoax” surrounding Andrew Wakefield.

Why blame the media for Andrew Wakefield’s MMR scandal?

Did a case report about 12 kids really set off a panic about vaccines and autism? Of course, Wakefield deserves a lot of the blame too, but why were his papers so widely  publicized?

“Whatever you think about Andrew Wakefield, the real villains of the MMR scandal are the media.”

Ben Goldacre on The MMR story that wasn’t

Maybe because the British media didn’t learn anything after the pertussis outbreaks of the 1970s and 80s.

In 1973, Dr. John Wilson took to the media to scare parents because he had “seen too many children in whom there has been a very close association between a severe illness, with fits, unconsciousness, often focal neurological signs, and inoculation.” What followed was a drop in DPT vaccinations in many countries and vaccine lawsuits, even though his study was later found to be seriously flawed, with most having no link to the DPT vaccine.

When articles from daily and Sunday papers in Great Britain from the time were analyzed, they were found to be “irresponsible in their attitude” towards vaccines and often depicted “rare, negative events.”

In the United States, Dr. Robert Mendelsohn, one of the first celebrity, anti-vaccine pediatricians, was a frequent guest on Donahue and other talk shows during the 1970s and 80s.

And in 1982, Lea Thompson‘s anti-vaccine documentary DPT: Vaccine Roulette, helped start the modern American anti-vaccine movement.

“Many activists, like Robert Kennedy Jr., have blamed some vaccines for IQ loss, mental retardation and autism. I think that activists and lawyers may be killing people by frightening the public about vaccines. My own daughter got whooping cough after our pediatrician saw a 20/20 report that scared viewers about the whooping cough vaccine and didn’t give her the final vaccination. Fortunately, my daughter recovered, and she will appear on the program. I confront one of the lawyers about “scaring people for money.”

John Stossel 20/20 “Scared Stiff: Worry in America” (2007)

What followed were vaccine scare stories about DPT “hot lots,” vaccine injury stories on Nightline, and Jenny McCarthy on Oprah. There was also a lot of Wakefield on TV, from a 60 Minutes segment in 2000 to a long interview with Matt Lauer in 2009.

“The stories in the media have focused on anecdotal reports of adults and children who developed several different disorders after vaccination.”

Institute of Vaccine Safety Position on Hepatitis B Vaccines

What else have we seen? Stories about:

The New York Times did a report about the First Deaf Miss America, saying a reaction to a DPT shot - she didn't.
The New York Times did a report about the First Deaf Miss America, saying a reaction to a DPT shot – she didn’t. The revised story didn’t get as much attention though.
  • hepatitis B vaccine causing multiple sclerosis
  • DPT and other vaccines causing SIDS
  • the HPV vaccines causing autoimmune diseases and other side effects

Lately, the media seems to be doing a better job talking about vaccines, except for a few cases, including Katie Couric discussing the HPV vaccine on her show in 2013 and the TODAY Show letting Robert DeNiro talk about Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine movie VAXXED in 2016.

Worldwide, most vaccine scare stories are limited to tabloid type papers these days. The mainstream media is finally learning about the damage false balance in reporting can cause.

CBS News, who previously had been credited with having a four year run of “extremist views of vaccines and autism,” even ran a story recently educating viewers that dozens of studies have confirmed that the HPV vaccines are safe and that “We need to do better at protecting our children from cancers they never need to get.”

Unfortunately, yesterday’s vaccine scare stories have been replaced by vaccine injury stories on Facebook and YouTube.

Are they the new fuel for the modern anti-vaccine movement? Or is it talk about choice and mandates, making parents fear that they will be forced to vaccinate their kids?

Get educated about vaccines so you don’t get scared away from vaccinating and protecting your kids.

What To Know About Vaccine Scare Stories

Vaccine scare stories in the media, fueled by anecdotal reports and false balance in their reporting, have helped scare parents away from vaccinating and protecting their kids.

More About Vaccine Scare Stories

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