There’s an excellent article this week in the open access biology journal of the Public Library of Science that deals with the astonishing persistence ofthe  mythical link between vaccination and autism. It eloquently traces the most prevalent medical urban legend of our time from it’s inception to the current day – do yourself a favor and check it out here.

In spite of multiple studies by the Center for Disease Control and independent health policy organization the Institute for Medicine which all failed to find any connection between vaccinations and autism, the notion that of a link continues to gain traction even today, when as many as 1 in 4 adults believe that some sort of link exists. The situation is a troubling look at the dark side of the democratization of information – with so much information available, concerned citizens are often unable to separate fact from fiction, research from anecdote.

Once it hits the Internet, every opinion tends to look much the same, whether it’s issued by a respected scientist or an understandably distraught parent. Coupled with testimony from celebrities who are more willing and able to be booked on talk shows than most vaccine researchers and a burgeoning cottage industry of books promoting vaccine alternatives, vaccination fears aren’t going away, and that’s alarming. What’s more alarming is the fact that whole towns of parents who don’t believe in vaccinations continue to crop up, creating a health risk not just to their residents but to the general public.

Beyond a history of the current situation, the article deftly underscores the pressing need for better public relations efforts from the scientific community. Researchers and doctors seem stumped at how to effectively communicate the facts of the matter, letting more media savvy anti-vaccination pundits dominate the narrative. No one is denying it’s a hot button topic for concerned parents, and the fact that researchers who attempt to publicly debunk these claims are regularly met with death threats doesn’t make things any easier. Nor does a media environment that thrives on conflict, presenting two sides of every story even when only one is borne out by facts. Or the burden of proof placed on vaccine researchers, who are admonished for being unable to disprove the theory of a link. Granted, the latter point is really someone taking issue with the scientific method rather than any specific findings, but it remains a surprisingly effective tool for keeping alive a debate that should be long since settled.

All of these factors make putting to bed the notion of a link between autism and vaccinations more difficult. But that fact only makes it more important that some group do just that. At some point, a line has to be drawn between facts  and opinions. When Jenny McCarthy can appear on Larry King Live and claims that “parents’ anecdotal information is science-based information,” someone from the scientific community needs to step up and tell the truth –  ‘No, it’s not.’ It needs to be done carefully, and it needs to be done with the utmost respect for the many families struggling with autism, but it needs to be done. Because the longer the myth of a link between vaccinations and autism goes largely unchallenged by the medical community, at least in the public eye, the harder it will be to undo the damage. And beyond distracting attention and resources from promising autism research, that damage has the potential to undermine public confidence in childhood vaccinations, leaving more and more children vulnerable to preventable diseases like whooping cough or  measles, which is more prevalent in the United States now than at any time in the last ten years. 

Needless to say, that’s not good news for anyone.