Looking for stronger statements from Sanjay

Jan 06 2011 Published by under Journalism, Medicine

Last night I watched CNN as Sanjay Gupta interviewed accused medical fraudster Andrew Wakefield, and the subsequent discussion with Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, (along with Anderson Cooper).  Aside from having given a podium to Wakefield, the interview was a good one.  I have nothing to say about Wakefield's performance except that it was hardly exculpatory.   Mnookin was brilliant---knowledgeable, articulate; everything a science journalist should be.  I was less happy with Dr. Gupta.

Sanjay made it clear that he favors vaccines, and that he has had his own children immunized fully and on time, and for that message he deserves kudos.  But as has been his habit, he strayed a bit too far into a "both side-ism" that creates more confusion than  clarity.

Gupta, a very bright and well-respected public figure and physician, has  a lot of influence and his words matter.  He had the opportunity here to speak loudly and clearly about this fraud and its negative effect on public health.   Instead he peppered his remarks with qualifiers.  He reiterated that Wakefield has no credibility in the scientific community, when he might properly have stopped at "no credibility".  He states that it's impossible to prove a negative (sic?), and if we knew "the" cause of autism, the debate would be entirely different.

I'm not so sure.

We know, with as much certainty as is reasonable in science, that vaccines do not cause autism.  The fact that we do not know the cause of most cases of autism is not as relevant as this fact.  I really do appreciate his strong statements in favor of vaccines, but his other statements feel like an attempt at "balance" where none is warranted.

I respect Dr. Gupta (except the execrable John of God report) and I think he has a lot to offer in communicating medicine and science to the public.  He might have used the Wakefield Fraud report to make a strong statement about good science, bad science, and the impact these have on public health.  Instead, he was wishy-washy and for that I'm disappointed.

5 responses so far

  • chezjake says:

    This may be a CNN thing. They are the only major news organization whose every piece of news coverage of the Wakefield fraud has featured large doses of “both side-ism,” even in their headlines.

  • Dianne says:

    He states that it’s impossible to prove a negative (sic?), and if we knew “the” cause of autism, the debate would be entirely different.

    I'm going to make a prediction: We will never know THE cause of autism because it is not caused by any single thing. Autism is an end result which can probably be caused by a lot of different things, probably mostly genetic abnormalities/polymorphisms of various sorts.

    The one thing we know as certainly as we can know anything is that it is not caused by vaccination. Cell phones don't cause brain cancer either. We don't know for sure what cause(s) these conditions have, but thanks to popular paranoia and a couple of cases of accidental, non-causal correlations, we can eliminate vaccines as a cause of autism and cell phones as a cause of brain cancer.

    • James Sweet says:

      Orac made a good point about the alleged cell phone brain cancer link: Even if there was a slight correlation (which as you say is highly unlikely), would that indicate we should stop using cell phones? Possibly not.

      There is a very strong correlation between "automobile use" and "sudden death from severe trauma". And yet we all still drive/ride in cars. Why? Because it is such a necessary fixture of modern existence that we are willing to take the risk.

      If using a cell phone increased your risk of brain cancer by 1%, would you really give it up? I wouldn't...

  • James Sweet says:

    He states that...if we knew “the” cause of autism, the debate would be entirely different.

    I’m not so sure.

    Without commenting on the rest of what Gupta says, and acknowledging that Dianne is quite right in pointing out that autism seems to be one of those syndromes with no "the" singular cause -- I'm not so sure about your not-so-sureness :p

    Certainly the anti-vax cranks would not go away, and from a rational perspective what you go on to say about it is correct. But from an emotional perspective, the uncertainty about the cause of autism makes fertile breeding ground for fear and panic.

    It's very difficult for parents to accept the reality: that their infant son has somewhere close to a 1% chance of developing autism (less so for a daughter, of course), that there is no way to refine that estimate until he either does or does not develop symptoms, that even if he starts to develop normally he could always have a sudden regression -- and that there's not a goddamn thing you can do about any of it.

    And there's where the hardcore anti-vaxers find their most receptive audience. I would venture to guess that the majority of people who don't vaccinate are not part of the unchangeable hardcore, but are rather people who are scared stiff of their kid developing autism, and are duped into going along with a no-vax/slow-vax plan because it gives them the illusion of control.

    If you could say to those parents -- and to reiterate, as Dianne points out, this is probably not a plausible hypothetical, but go along with it for a second -- if you could say to those parents, "Hey, we figured it out! Autism is caused almost exclusively by exposure to chemical X, so just make sure your son is not exposed to chemical X, and his odds of developing autism should be virtually nil"... well, you're right that it wouldn't change the minds of the anti-vaccine activists, but you'd find a helluva lot fewer frightened parents buying into their propaganda.

  • Liz Ditz says:

    Thanks for writing this. I was transcribing all the coverage and was very disappointed in Gupta's remarks. He also does not seem to be particularly knowledgeable about autism. I was also disappointed that CNN chose to give airtime to interview parents who believe in the vaccine-autism hypothesis (with the exception of Alison Singer) instead of interviewing (a) adults with autism and/or (b) a range of parents, including those who reject the vaccine causation myth. My suspicion is that only a minority of parents of children with autism still believe in the autism = vaccine injury myth; even a smaller minority of adults with autism have that view.