When Entertainment Encourages Epidemics




The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a press release calling for ABC to cancel its pilot episode of a new drama Eli Stone. Renee R. Jenkins, MD, President of the AAP, accused ABC of “reckless irresponsibility” in screening a television program that may give parents the false impression that vaccines cause autism. She goes on to say that, “If parents watch this program and choose to deny their children immunizations, ABC will share in the responsibility for the suffering and deaths that occur as a result.”

Pediatricians have been battling a public perception that a link exists between autism and childhood vaccinations since the infamous 1998 British study published in The Lancet in which a researcher asserted that he had discovered a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was performed on only twelve patients, and the onset of symptoms was associated only retrospectively and by the parents with the MMR vaccine. Study after study performed since then have debunked the link, but the perception remains among parents worldwide, leading many of them to delay or forego important childhood vaccinations.

Parents can hardly be blamed for their hesitancy; autism and autism spectrum disorders present a frightening specter for any parent, and with bad science clouding reality, it’s easy to see how even educated parents may teeter on the edge of the decision. On the one hand is the potential that a child might contract a disease that most people haven’t seen in the US for years (measles, mumps, or rubella), and on the other is the notion that by protecting the child from the infectious diseases, he might develop a disorder that manifests itself in an inability to interact with and relate to others normally.

Reading articles with an eye toward the bias of the author is a learned skill that is typically taught in high school and refined in the university setting. Students pursuing the hard or social sciences have additional training in reading research papers by evaluating hypotheses, interpreting statistical analyses, and determining whether the conclusions presented are adequately supported by experimental results. Many adults have never had the opportunity to read or interpret primary literature and are at the mercy of those that interpret the results and present them to the world in the popular media. We can presume that most experts in a given field are competent and forthright in presenting results, but we must also acknowledge that holding advanced degrees does not guarantee honesty, particularly when other interests and biases are present. The popular news media, therefore, does bear some responsibility for reporting data accurately and with as little bias as possible.

But what responsibility does the entertainment industry bear in presenting bad science as legitimate in a fictional setting? How much poetic license is allowable if the subject matter could potentially cause serious bodily harm, however indirect, to viewers? Where is the line between art imitating life, and life being adversely influenced by art?

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. (2008). American Academy of Pediatrics Calls for Cancellation of “Eli Stone” Premier.

WAKEFIELD, A., MURCH, S., ANTHONY, A., LINNELL, J., CASSON, D., MALIK, M., BERELOWITZ, M., DHILLON, A., THOMSON, M., HARVEY, P. (1998). Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. The Lancet, 351(9103), 637-641. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(97)11096-0

Nicole Obert

Mrs. Obert is a graduate of Southeast Missouri State University with over ten years of professional experience in an institute of higher education, including the University of Illinois and Texas A&M University.
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