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Journalist's Vaccine Article Draws Hate Mail

Journalist Amy Wallace's article in the November issue of Wired Magazine about the passionate, and sometimes angry, debate over whether vaccines cause autism drew some vitriolic response.

"I've heard a lot of anger. I've heard that I'm stupid. I've heard that I'm greedy. I've heard that I did this to get famous," Wallace tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I've heard that I'm a whore, I'm a prostitute."

Wallace's article, An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, profiles pediatrician Paul Offit, who invented the vaccine for rotavirus and is a lightning rod for criticism in the anti-vaccination community. In his book, Autism's False Prophets, last year, Offit said any risks of vaccination are dwarfed by the risks of childhood diseases.

"We, at Wired, wanted to use a profile of him as a way into a broader issue, which is vaccine panic, which is not just an American problem — it's a global issue," Wallace says. "And ... educated people are afraid. ... Even people who do vaccinate are worried about the impacts on their children."

Wallace says vaccines have done such a good job of removing the visible threat of diseases such as whooping cough or measles that some people see vaccination as a greater risk than childhood disease. Because of that, she says, many educated people in parts of the U.S. have decided not to vaccinate their children.

This has "left whole pockets of the community very wide open to an outbreak of illness," she says.

Wallace calls part of the discourse that has followed her article "a bullying tactic." She points to JB Handley, founder of Generation Rescue — which contends that too many vaccines are given too soon and blames autism on vaccines — for many attacks against her in the blogosphere. She says such tactics dissuade many scientists from taking a stand in the debate. It is important to speak out against those tactics, she says, adding that she has been commenting regularly about the issue on Twitter.

"There are some things in life that are true, and I think the debate needs to be civil," Wallace says. "That's part of what I've been trying to participate in — a civil discussion of these issues."

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

There is a passionate, even angry debate in this country over the safety of vaccines, set off by fears that kids are over-vaccinated or that vaccines can cause autism. Numerous studies have failed to show a connection between vaccines and autism.

Journalist Amy Wallace takes this on in the November issue of Wired magazine. Her article is titled "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All."

And as you can tell from the title, Wallace has an opinion on the matter. The story doesn't end there. Since the article was published, Wallace has been receiving a torrent of response, some of it vitriolic.

Amy Wallace joins me here at NPR West.

Thanks for coming in, Amy.

Ms. AMY WALLACE (Writer, Wired Magazine): Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: Your piece is largely a profile of a pediatrician named Paul Offit who had invented a vaccine for rotavirus. He's a vaccine expert. He's also, though, a lightning rod for criticism in the anti-vaccine community.

Ms. WALLACE: Yes. Partly, he's risen to that level of lightning rod-hood, if that's a word, by writing a book last year called "Autism's False Prophets" that attempts to untangle this emotional issue and talk about what the science actually shows and what the science doesn't show.

We at Wired wanted to use a profile of him as a way into a broader issue, which is vaccine panic. People are afraid. Educated people are afraid, many of them are. Even people who do vaccinate are worried about the impacts on their children.

BLOCK: Paul Offit's point and the point you make in your article is that people are ignoring the math here, that any risks from the vaccines are completely dwarfed by the risk of childhood disease.

Ms. WALLACE: Yeah. I mean, there's an irony going on here, which is that vaccines have done such a good job of removing the visible threat of pertussis or whooping cough, of the measles, that it has started to feel to some parents like the risks of getting a vaccine are larger than the risks of dying of some of these childhood diseases.

And as a result, what's happened is that there have been outbreaks because there are pockets of the country where educated people, largely, have decided to take it upon themselves to become experts, not vaccinate their children because they believe that they know better than the experts, and therefore, have left whole pockets of the community very wide open to an outbreak of illness.

BLOCK: Let's talk about some of the response you've gotten to this article, starting with the vitriolic response that we mentioned. What have you heard from people?

Ms. WALLACE: Well, I've heard a lot of anger. I've heard that I'm stupid. I've heard that I'm greedy. I've heard that I did this to get famous. I've heard that I'm a whore, I'm a prostitute. I've heard several times, and it's been written about now a lot on the blogosphere from J.B. Handley, who's the founder of Generation Rescue, which believes there are too many vaccines given too soon and lays the blame for autism at the feet of vaccines. He said that Paul Offit raped me intellectually. He's questioned where I went to school.

There's a bullying tactic that is part of some of this debate that makes a lot of scientists very reluctant to speak out because they just want to do their work. They don't want to have a full-time job campaigning for this. And I think it's important to not be cowed by that.

There are some things in life that are true. And I think the debate needs to be civil. That's part of what I've been trying to participate in - a civil discussion of these issues.

BLOCK: Have any of the negative comments you've gotten caused you to rethink how you wrote the piece, think about voices you might have included that weren't there or points that are made that you didn't cover?

Ms. WALLACE: One of the things I hadn't included at all in the story was, you know, autistic people do not die of autism. They grow up and they become autistic adults. And I heard from several people talking about how they appreciated the story. They didn't believe that vaccines had caused their autism. But they wish that people didn't talk about autism as if it were a death sentence. And that's been a really moving, interesting sideline that I hadn't delved into at all.

I and Wired did what we set out to do, which is to use Dr. Offit's story to illustrate a broader issue. So, I don't have any regrets. But I guess I would turn it around and say I'm really gratified that it has started such a conversation or continued or made more public a conversation that happens every day.

BLOCK: Amy Wallace, thanks for coming in.

Ms. WALLACE: Thank you.

BLOCK: Amy Wallace is a writer based in Los Angeles. We've been talking about her story in the current issue of Wired magazine titled "An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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