Bookmarks Issue: 
Seth Mnookin

A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear

A-The Panic VirusSeth Mnookin is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. His previous books include Hard News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media (2004) and Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top (2006), a book about the recent history of the Boston Red Sox.

The Topic: Recent research has found that the infamous 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield purporting to prove a link between autism and childhood vaccinations was not only incorrect but fraudulent. Yet it would be hard to argue that the truth or falsehood of Wakefield's work is really at the root of the panic over the causes of autism that has led many parents to abandon vaccinations. Seth Mnookin studies this fear, the movement it has spawned, and its significant consequences in The Panic Virus, which includes an examination not only of the recent controversies but also of resistance to vaccination over several centuries.
Simon & Schuster. 448 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9781439158647.

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Mnookin's book is an unsparing brief against the vaccine skeptics. But in a larger sense, this volume is less about the insurrection against inoculations than it is about the democratization of information." David M. Shribman

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"This tragedy in the making has now been chronicled in a book that should be required reading at every medical school in the world. Seth Mnookin's The Panic Virus is a lesson on how fear hijacks reason and emotion trumps logic." Michael Shermer

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] disturbing and well-told chronicle of the childhood vaccine wars in the United States and England. While Mnookin traces the history of vaccines, beginning with the one for smallpox, his focus is on the specious but remarkably persistent myth that the current roster of shots children receive to prevent diseases such as measles, whooping cough and hepatitis B can cause autism or other serious problems." Sandra G. Boodman

Miami Herald 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Through hundreds of interviews and exhaustive research, Mnookin not only debunks the vaccines-cause-autism theory but also exposes many of the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement as modern snake oil salesmen, peddling quack cures to parents desperate to help their children. ... Loaded with interesting anecdotes and historical tidbits, The Panic Virus is a fascinating read." Susannah Nesmith

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Mnookin reveals the long history of a conflict that harks back to the 1720s, when Cotton Mather was firebombed for advocating vaccinations. Alarmist TV reports in the 1980s, bearing titles like ‘Vaccine Roulette,' proved scarcely less crude. The result, combined with fraudulent research bearing the imprimatur of The Lancet, is a damning parade of lazy reporters, incompetent doctors and opportunistic politicians." Paul Collins

Critical Summary

It might be possible to view Mnookin's book as the final nail in the coffin for the contemporary antivaccine movement, given its recent scientific and legal setbacks. But Mnookin's own conclusions would likely deny this; as several reviewers approvingly observed, The Panic Virus is just as much about how today's society deals with information overload as it is about how it confronts disease. Many reviews echoed Mnookin's condemnation of the American media for allowing false antivaccine findings to flower. Yet they also praised him for avoiding heavy-handedness and unnecessary jargon, even if the book breaks little new ground in the vaccine debate. Critics strongly recommended the book to anyone interested in medicine and public health, as well as to parents who may fear that booster shot.