A PSA to journalists writing about vaccines: Thimerosal was never used in the MMR vaccine

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The shameless and lamentable decision on the part of ABC to hire Jenny McCarthy as one of its co-hosts for the daytime talk show The View has, once again, brought the topic of vaccines and autism into the news. Fortunately, the spineless “on the one hand, on the other hand” reporting that characterized this debate for so many years has, for the most part, been replaced by an almost universal acknowledgment that vaccines are a safe, life-saving public health intervention — and that there is not now and never has been the smallest shred of evidence showing a causal link between any vaccine and autism.

As someone who’s been reporting on and writing about this issue for five years, I know how confusing it all can be — and anti-vaccine activists (like McCarthy or RFK Jr.) take advantage of this confusion by moving the goalposts, throwing up smokescreens, and generally doing whatever they can to obfuscate the reality of the situation. (When there aren’t any facts on your side, your only hope is to create enough distractions so that the public forgets what the real issue was in the first place.)

Which is why I get a little nuts when I see well-meaning journalists who are attempting to grapple seriously with the issue make basic mistakes. Take this Los Angeles Times story^ titled “Jenny McCarthy on ‘View’: A new forum for discredited autism theories.” After running through the sorry history of charlatan/opportunist Andrew Wakefield’s efforts to scare people into thinking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism, the author writes (the emphasis, obviously, is mine):

Subsequent efforts to replicate Wakefield’s findings failed. But vaccination rates began a steep decline anyway, and a new generation of parent activists — skeptics of the biomedical industry’s claim on their children — was born. Meanwhile, the findings spurred additional research, which suggested that the specific culprit in the MMR vaccine was the widely used preservative thimerosol.

I’ll say this as clearly as I can: The MMR vaccine does not and never did contained thimerosal. (This mistake is made so often that the FDA has included it as one of it’s FAQ’s about thimerosal.) It’s a small, niggling point in this larger debate — but when the anti-vaccine movement’s entire tactic is to blur reality, it’s crucially important that those of us dedicated to uncovering and reporting the truth make sure we get every last detail right.

^ July 19: Earlier today, the Times changed the wording in their story and appended a correction which read, “For the Record, 9:08 a.m. PDT, July 19: An earlier version of this online article incorrectly stated that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine had contained the preservative thimerosal. It did not.” Kudos to them for making the change. I’m not sure why it took them more than 80 hours to do so, but better late than never…

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