While the search continues for a cause -- and for a cure -- autism in general has become part of the mainstream. But while children's programs like PBS's Arthur are encouraging acceptance and understanding about autism spectrum disorders, controversey is what's making headlines in the news.
Last night, PBS broadcast its Frontline piece on "The Vaccine Wars," touching on the MMR vaccine-autism debate and the Thimerosal-autism debate, both of which are still ongoing in some communities in spite of the fact that the supposed links have been debunked. The show pitted anecdotal evidence from parents against research and advice from medical professionals, creating, as Dr. Jay Gordon put it in an open letter to one of Frontline's co-producers, "a pseudo-documentary with a preconceived set of conclusions: 'Irresponsible moms against science' was an easy takeaway from the show."
An assistant professor of pediatrics at UCLA Medical School who has reservations about vaccinations, Dr. Gordon's multi-hourlong interview with Frontline ended up on the cutting room floor, he says, as did an interview with Dr. Robert W. Sears, author of The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child, who advocates an alternative vaccination schedule. Evidence in favor of vaccination was provided by researchers including Dr. Paul Offit, who has earned millions of dollars as the co-creator of the RotaTeq vaccine, is a paid spokesman for Merck, and has said that he thinks infants' immune systems could theoretically handle as many as 10,000 vaccinations at one time, or perhaps "closer to 100,000."
The Vaccine War wasn't all about autism. (Missed the show? You can watch it here.) It also delved into the way not vaccinating kids leads to a dangerous breach in herd immunity (Moms against science AND society!), but didn't touch on vaccine failure. (It does happen: An outbreak of the mumps in New York and New Jersey last year was not caused by a lack of immunization; in fact, most of the more-than 1,500 patients had been properly vaccinated against it.)
I'm fascinated by the discussion going on at the PBS.org forums right now. There are many parents posting with anecdotal evidence about the dangers of vaccination, and some of their stories are gut-wrenching. And there are plenty of medical practitioners posting well-worded, researched responses. It's a far cry from the moms-against-science tone of the program itself -- and, frankly, much more interesting.
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat. April is Autism Awareness Month; you can read her posts about autism here.