Virologist Provides Clarity Amidst Vaccine Controversy

Claire Jeantheau ’21, Contributing Writer

17 scientific studies done in seven countries and three continents show no connection between vaccinations and the diagnosis of autism, according to speaker Dr. Paul Offit. However, some groups insist that they share a cause-and-effect relationship, often citing personal experience.

This tension was the subject of the pediatrician and virologist’s Clarke Forum lecture in which he analyzed the debate surrounding vaccines and autism, including the perspectives of both the scientific community and the public at large.

Offit began with an overview of the medical study by Andrew Wakefield, coauthor of a 1998 study that suggested a link between autism and the mumps/measles/rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to a Apr. 6, 2013 article published by The Guardian. While this paper was originally published, it was later discredited. Despite this, critics have said that it directly resulted in a drop in parents vaccinating their children, according to the same article by The Guardian. During the panel, Offit outlined the unethical actions which contributed to the removal of Wakefield’s medical license, including taking blood samples from children at his son’s birthday party.

After providing this scientific background, Offit moved to how the controversy has been reported across mass media. He believes that the media’s primary goal is to “entertain, not educate,” making it difficult to convey the scientific facts of vaccinations to the public. He also detailed how an emotional focus and desire to show all sides of an argument can allow individuals with misleading information to gain a public platform.

Ilana Zeitzer ’19 particularly appreciated the “interesting take” Offit brought by examining public reception. She agreed that “the hard part of science is trying to communicate with people.”

The motivation for Offit to begin speaking out on the vaccine controversy was personal; in his view, “science was being brutalized.” He draws from his experience working in a hospital where children regularly suffer from vaccine-related illness. For Offit, to deny the effectiveness of vaccination under such circumstances raised “anger, more than anything else.”

Beth Eidam ’20 thought that Offit “was really well spoken.”

“[He] put to words a lot of the things that I believe but haven’t been able to back up with science before,” Eidam said. “He explained all the complicated scientific evidence in a simple and humorous way so that everyone was engaged and understood.”

Sivan Komatsu ’21 also thought “[Offit] spoke really thoughtfully and eloquently about the medical aspect of the controversy.” However, she also believed that Offit missed the opportunity to delve into the issue’s social aspects.

“I do think that he could have spoken more to the cultural contexts that make autism such a fear for parents and how that factors into the refusal to vaccinate,” Komatsu said.

Offit is currently professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine as well as the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Vaccine Education Center. Additionally, he has published several books, the most recent being Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong.

“The Vaccine-Autism Controversy” lecture was held on Thursday, Nov. 2 in the Anita Tuvin Schlecter Auditorium.