Journalist Seth Mnookin, author of the book The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear
was on Forum today, talking about and debunking the link between autism and vaccines.

The topic is of special interest in the Bay Area because Marin County has become a hotbed of anti-vaccine activity. “Marin County…has the nation’s fifth-highest average per capita income—and an exemption rate more than three times the rest of the state,” Mnookin writes in a recent Newsweek piece.

After his interview, we caught up with him in our green room and asked him a couple of follow-ups:

Part 1

Part 2

Listen to the full hour with Seth Mnookin on Forum:

And if you think this isn’t a hot topic, take a look at the back-and-forth on the Forum message board


Video: Author Seth Mnookin’s “The Panic Virus” Debunks Autism Link to Vaccines 7 March,2011Jon Brooks

  • MW

    Questions for Mr. Mnookin. Been waiting 3 months for an answer.

    Seth, recently on CNN you said there was not one single published, peer-reviewed study that links autism and vaccines. When I go to Pubmed (library of the NIH) and type in “autism and vaccines” I get references to 510 papers. About 75% of these papers voice concerns about medical symptoms of autism and vaccines. Why would you say that there is not one single study?

    Seth, I’m currently employed as a chemist and have 27 years of experience. Of the thousands of items I’ve tested for mercury, nothing comes close to containing the amount of mercury I found in multi-dose, childhood vaccine vials. Do you really think it is wise for the medical community to risk their reputation defending the injection of infants with bolus doses of ethylmercury?

    Seth, half of my elemmentary school had measles in May of 1962. We all had to stay home for 4 whole days. Not one child had to go to the hospital or even see a Doctor. Is measles different today? I understand that you claimed one recent case of measles cost $179,000 to contain. You then multiplied that number by 837 people that were in contact with this person and the total cost you came up with was $150 million. Sounds a little far fetched Seth.

    • Thimerosal, the mercury-based preservative that had been used in multi-dose vaccines, has not been present in childhood inoculations since 2001. I have no idea what you’re testing, but there’s no mercury in childhood vaccines.

      If you were testing pre-2001 vaccines and you’ve never found any substance with higher concentrations of mercury, I can only assume that you’d never testing anything else for mercury, because the amount was much smaller than what you’d find in any number of other substances. If you’d like to share your name and the lab at which you’d work, I’d love to see the tests you conducted.

      I never claimed that one case of measles cost $179,000 to contain, nor did I claim that the measles outbreak in 2008 that was started by a deliberately unvaccinated child cost $150 million to contain. Each measles infection in that outbreak did cost over $10,000. (In addition, there were dozens of families whose children were quarantined at an average cost per family of close to $1,000.) I mistakenly multiplied the cost of the infected children by the total number of people affected in that outbreak and came up with a number that was incorrect.

      That was a mistake. I wish I hadn’t made it, but in a 100,000-word book, it’s inevitable that some mistakes occur. As soon as I discovered my error, I corrected it on my website. I also tweeted about it and posted the information on my Facebook page in an effort to correct the record as quickly and as vocally as possible — because I firmly believe that journalists have a responsible to be transparent and open. That’s also why I have 113 pages of back matter — source notes and a bibliography — accompanying the 308 pages of text in my book.

      When you say you “understand” that I “claimed” something, I assume you’re taking something you heard secondhand and phrasing it in a way that’s meant to sound nefarious.

      I’m glad that your classmates were not more seriously affected by your measles infections — and I’m saying that with all sincerity. Fortunately, many children who are infected with measles do not have serious complications. Some, however, do — like the infant who was too young to have been vaccinated who was infected in the 2008 outbreak and ended up in a pediatric ICU.

  • SS

    MW, what do you mean by “voicing concerns”? Studies don’t “voice concerns” — they test hypotheses as either true or false. It’s possible than any number of studies might mention various symptoms of autism or of vaccination as worthy of looking into. That’s what studies are for. Did the studies you mention prove a link between autism and vaccines? If so, which ones? If not, you’re just confusing an issue of great concern to parents.

  • vesalius

    Since removing thimerosal-containing vaccines from the pediatric vaccine schedule has clearly not–even years later–reduced the prevalence of autism in California, Quebec, Sweden, Denmark, or Finland; and since a large, careful, case-control study has shown that exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines is not associated with autism; and since exposure to mercury both prenatally and postnatally is not associated with the risk of autism, MW’s observations don’t seem to have anything at all to do with autism.

    MW and some others seem to be fixated on a failed hypothesis that was based on a spurious association of increasing exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines and the apparently increasing prevalence of autism; the first part of this idea has been thoroughly refuted, and the evidence for an “epidemic” of autism has crumbled: so far, it is clear that a handful of factors (such as changing diagnostic criteria, diagnostic substitution, and additional diagnoses given to children already diagnosed as mentally retarded) explains at least two-thirds of the alleged increase (note that, despite the expected “tsunami” of ASD, the percentage of California eligible for services under IDEA has remained flat for the past ten years), and other factors (such as living in proximity to freeways and advanced parental age at the time of conception) explain some of the remaining one-third of the apparent increase; and a recent UK National Health Services study found that autism was as prevalent in the adult population as it is in children–what’s missing is evidence that vaccines are in any way involved with the remaining rather modest apparent increase in ASD prevalence. (BTW, it’s interesting that those, like MW, who believe that exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines caused an epidemic of autism in the US neglect to address the fact that the autism in the UK apparently increased in parallel to the apparent increase in the US, despite the fact that no thimerosal-containing vaccine had been added to the UK pediatric vaccine schedule since the 1950s.)

    Subtle cranio-facial dysmorphologies are very much more common in children with ASD (even those with normal IQ) than in the general population. Since such changes are indicative of changes in neurodevelopment in the first trimester, it’s hard to believe that they could be caused by exposure to thimerosal administered months or years later. MW is well behind the curve.

  • MW

    Vesalius, The study most frequently cited is from Denmark (1). Denmark banned thimerosal in 1992 after their health authorities realized how much mercury kids were being exposed to. For starters, kids from Denmark received only a third of the number of thimerosal containing vaccines as kids in the U.S. so this is a worthless comparison right from the start. In the years prior to 1995 the researchers only counted autistic inpatients. In 1995 the researchers started counting autistic outpatients in addition to inpatients. Since outpatients outnumber inpatients by a factor of 13:1 in Denmark, one would expect a minimum increase in cases of autism of at least 13 fold. This was not the case. Rates of autism in Denmark appear to be about 1:10 of the rates in the USA. This study and the others you cite were all done by people who make, administer and mandate vaccines. They are all fraudulent. To see how this fraud is carried out I suggest you Google, “Dissecting a thimerosal study”.

    (1) Madsen KM, Lauritsen MB, Pedersen CB, Thorsen P, Plesner AM, Andersen PH, Mortensen PB, Preben B. 2003. Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence From Danish Population-Based Data. Pediatrics 112: 604-606

    • vesalius

      MW, Masden’s work was replicated by Hviid et al. [JAMA. 2003: 290(13):1763-1766], who also showed that using ONLY those years in which data collection was uniform (that is, when both outpatient and inpatient data were captured [1995 through 2000]) the result was the same: the prevalence of autism continued to increase years after thimerosal was removed from pediatric vaccines. (BTW, prior to the discontinuation of its use, in fact from 1970 to 1992 Danish children received 250 micrograms of thimerosal in pediatric vaccines by ten months of age, which is comparable to the US situation prior to the dramatic reduction in exposure to thimerosal here.)

      Moreover, recent work shows that the prevalence of autism in Quebec continued to increase in birth cohorts that received pediatric vaccines as much as six to nine years following the 1996 removal of 200 micrograms of thimerosal from the pediatric vaccines schedule [Can J Psychiatry. 2010 Nov;55(11):715-20]; this confirmed earlier work in Quebec [Pediatrics. 2006 Jul;118(1):e139-50] and California [Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008 Jan;65(1):19-24] as well as the previous results from Denmark. [Pediatrics. 2003 Sep;112(3 Pt 1):604-6] There is no dose-response relationship between thimerosal and neuropsychological outcomes [Pediatrics. 2009 Feb;123(2):475-82; N Engl J Med. 2007 Sep 27;357(13):1281-92], and a careful case-control study showed that there is no increased risk of autism associated with exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines. [Pediatrics. 2010 Oct;126(4):656-64]

      The idea that increasing exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines caused an epidemic of autism is well and truly dead.

      • MW

        Conflicts statement from the study:

        “Financial support for the compilation of the data used in this investigation and the preparation of this report was provided by the National Immunization Program, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are grateful to Victoria Romanus of the Swedish Institute for Infectious Disease Control, Ingrid Trolin of the Swedish Medical Products Agency, Anne-Marie Plesner and Peter Andersen of the Danish Statens Serum Institut Institut [Denmark’s largest vaccine company], and Roger Bernier and Susan Chu of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for their contributions in the design and conduct of this investigation, and in the preparation and review of this manuscript.”

        • vesalius

          Financial disclosures are indeed useful in the process of evaluating studies–that’s why they are included in papers, but such disclosures obviously do not necessarily disqualify the research results.

          When a study has been independently replicated numerous times in subsequent years (as the Masden study has been) it becomes clear that the potential conflicts of interest did not in fact influence the outcome of the study–and Masden’s work in Denmark has been confirmed as autism prevalence continued to dramatically increase years after thimerosal exposure was dramatically reduced in California, Finland, Quebec, and Sweden (and as it continued to increase during the same time frame in the UK, just as it had increased in recent decades, although no thimerosal-containing vaccine had been added to the UK pediatric vaccine schedule since the 1950s). When a study is not only repeatedly replicated but it is also strongly supported by multiple, independent lines of evidence developed by other research groups, pointing out a potential conflict of interest is a rather desperate a pathetically weak argument, as you must know.

          It’s rather strange, BTW, to dwell on a flaw in an older study after that study’s shortcomings have been addressed and corrected in newer work which emphatically support the findings of the older study.

          • MW

            I’m confused. Out of one side of your mouth you say autism has not increased at all, it’s just better diagnosis. Out of the other side you say thimerosal has been removed from vaccines and rates of autism continue to sky-rocket. Which one is it?

        • vesalius

          MW wrote: “I’m confused.”

          Yes, you are. The apparent prevalence (the number of people diagnosed with ASD in a particular period) has increased–and it is clear that this is largely due to a few defined factors such as changes in diagnostic criteria–while the evidence that there has been an actual increase in incidence (the number of new cases in a period) is weak, although some actual increase has been claimed due to increasing parental age at the time of conception and living in proximity to a freeway; nonetheless, it is clear that any true increase in incidence is a small fraction of the apparent increase in prevalence.

          But back to your thimerosal issue: Uptake of the only thimerosal-containing vaccine on the UK pediatric vaccine schedule remained flat for decades while the prevalence of autism in the UK increased in parallel to the increase of ASD in the US. Isn’t that, of itself, enough to help you to understand that the increase in the prevalence of ASD in the US is not likely to be due to exposure to thimerosal-containing vaccines–even if you ignore the other, even more compelling lines of evidence?

          • Joe

            MW, Vesilaus is right. Not only that, the paper from the UK (published in Pediatrics), shows that mercury had a “protective effect”. The more mercury injected into the kid, the better they did!

  • MW

    Here’s the facts on mercury in vaccines. Spin them any way you want.

    0.5 parts per billion (ppb) mercury = Kills human neuroblastoma cells (Parran et al., Toxicol Sci 2005; 86: 132-140).

    2 ppb mercury = U.S. EPA maximum limit for drinking water.

    20 ppb mercury = Neurite membrane structure destroyed (Leong et al., Neuroreport 2001; 12: 733-37).

    200 ppb mercury = level in liquid the EPA classifies as hazardous waste based on toxicity characteristics.

    25,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose, Hepatitis B vaccine vials, administered at birth from 1991-2001 in the U.S.

    50,000 ppb mercury = Concentration of mercury in multi-dose DTaP and Haemophilus B vaccine vials, administered 8 times in the 1990’s to children at 2, 4, 6, 12 and 18 months of age and currently “preservative” level mercury in multi-dose flu, meningococcal and tetanus vaccines. This can be confirmed by simply analyzing the multi-dose vials.

    In addition ethylmercury, the type used in vaccines, is more toxic than methylmercury. Why? Primate studies show that ethylmercury leaves behind twice as much divalent mercury in the brain than methylmercury. Injecting this into the muscle provides rapid access to the bloodstream and just makes this situation much worse. Now there are a lot of people who just don’t understand this. These people will buy into Mr. Mnookin’s nonsense. Unfortunately, most educated people will not. This is why this debate will never go away.

  • Glenn Geignetter

    First of all this guy has a degree in writing from Harvard not science.
    Second, the guy is a recovering heroin addict by his own admission.
    Third, heroin addicts stick all sorts of things in their arms including vaccines.
    Fourth, his other expertise is baseball. See “feeding the Monster.”
    No need to listen to scientists when you have those credentials.
    My guess is this guy is on the Big Pharma payroll.
    Just a tool for the globalists.


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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