Is the Media Simplifying a Complex Story on Disease Outbreaks?

By Keith Kloor
Feb 25, 2013 11:10 PMNov 19, 2019 9:27 PM


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In recent years, there has been an outbreak of media stories on early childhood disease outbreaks. The press has reported a spike in cases of measles, mumps, and whooping cough in communities from Seattle to Vermont. In many of the stories, a cause-and-effect relationship to lower childhood vaccination rates has been explicit. (Some journalists, however, have been careful not to follow the herd.) An obvious culprit is the anti-vaccination movement. But in a provocative post at his Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan asks:

What is the evidence that an "anti-vaccination movement" is "causing" epidemics of childhood diseases in US?

He's not seeing any, and wonders:

If not, why does the media keep making this claim? Why do so many people not ask to see some evidence?

That seems like a reasonable question. The point isn't to ding the press. There is something more important at stake here, Kahan explains:

If there isn't evidence for the sorts of reports I'm describing, is it constructive to make people believe that nonvaccination is playing a bigger role than it actually is in any outbreaks of childhood diseases? Might doing so actually reduce proper attention to the actual causes of such outbreaks, including ineffective vaccines? Might they stir up anxiety by actually inducing people to believe that more people are worried about the vaccines than really are?

Kahan is forcing me to confront my own biases on this issue. I've tended to see anti-vaccination activists as a major threat to public health and in my own mind have made the connection between their rise and the outbreaks of whooping cough and other preventable childhood diseases. I still think the threat posed by a well-organized and vocal anti-vaxx movement is real and needs to be countered. But the larger story is evidently more complex and Kahan is right to call on the media to treat it as such.

[Cover of 2011 book by Paul Offit]

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