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An Interview with Seth Mnookin about Vaccine Safety

On Tuesday, April 23, author Seth Mnookin joined "Seattle Mama Doc" Wendy Sue Swanson at Town Hall to talk about vaccines, modern parenthood and (mis)information online. Mnookin's book, The Panic Virus, is a gripping, in-depth history of vaccine fear and controversy, and the media's role in propagating the gap between scientific evidence and emotions.

Check out the interview in this Seattle Channel video:

Seattle's Child - a sponsor of the event - caught up with Mnookin en route to Seattle from his home in Boston. Here is what he shared with us:

Seattle's Child: Here are two things we know: 1) parents are anxious to do whatever they can to keep their children safe, and 2) there are myriad and conflicting sources of information on the web. How can parents sift through all the information to make informed decisions about vaccine safety?

Seth Mnookin: I think that if you're going to look online, you need to be thoughtful about where you're going, and aware that anyone with basic skills can make a website that looks professional and reputable. Parents also need to be aware that just by putting certain key words into a search box, the results are going to include any number of things that are more or less accurate. For example, if you do a search on headaches and brain tumors, you're going to end up with a certain number of links that say, "yes, if you have a headache, you're definitely going to have a brain tumor."

The Internet has given us access to so much information that it's almost like having access to no information. It can be incredibly hard for the average person to know how to sift through it all. One of the good things we see now is that there are a number of really reliable, accurate and responsible information sources on the web that are also pretty comprehensible to parents: the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Vaccine Education Center, and, here in Seattle, the blog of "Seattle Mama Doc" Wendy Sue Swanson at Seattle Children's Hospital.

In your book, The Panic Virus, you recount an anecdote about a friend who chooses to delay vaccinations for his newborn because, in his words, "it just feels like a lot for a developing immune system." You also say that "anecdotes and suppositions, no matter how right they feel, don't lead to universal truths; experiments that can be independently confirmed by impartial observers do." How can parents navigate this fact/feeling divide?

SM: People are always going to respond emotionally to things. Human beings are emotional creatures. One thing we can do is recognize when we are responding emotionally to something, and figure out how to make sure we don't allow our emotions to override our ability to make evidence-based decisions. That said, most parents are just trying to figure out the best way to take care of their kids. Maybe they feel anxious about something they've read, and they want their pediatrician to listen to their concerns, and to be reassured.

I'm a proponent of pediatricians having office hours where one or two times a month parents can come in, without an appointment, to raise whatever concerns they might have. Anyone who has children knows how little time there is at a standard pediatric wellness appointment to satisfactorily address questions and anxieties. I also think pediatric practices could designate vaccination experts to be available to answer parents' questions above and beyond what can be addressed in a well-baby visit.

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