Week 12 Post – Kerr (Intro & Conclusion) & Offit (Ch. 8)

November 20, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

The introduction to the Kerr piece explained the concern that some people have with vaccines containing too much mercury, thus leading to Autism Spectrum Disorders in their children. Kerr performs a study to answer the question of “how and why activists continue to mobilize around the hypothesis that mercury vaccines triggers and/or causes ASD”, when there has not been enough scientific evidence to prove their case. The analysis of data and interviews are performed in this study to “a) outline the challenges to Western mainstream medicine’s cultural authority; b) describe and analyze ASD/VL activists’ organization and mobilization; and c) investigate how and why ASD/VL activists deploy personal experience to contest arguments that are scientific in nature.” Kerr concluded that the most consistent theme was uncertainty. He used Brown et. al’s five reasons “why uncertainty influences whether or not a particular illness or disease will be contested”: 1) uncertainty of the body’s past exposure – it is hard for them to determine the levels of mercury they have been exposed to, 2) uncertainty in knowledge of dose-response relationship – which we are unsure of with mercury and the body’s amount it can take, 3) uncertainty of synergistic effects – how does the body process mercury, 4) etiological uncertainty – what is the cause, and 5) diagnostic uncertainty – the problem of reliable and valid rates of diagnosis of ASD is contested because how do we know symptom x causes disease y? Kerr was also surprised with his finding that the influence of experimental knowledge was as prominent as it was.

Chapter 8 of the Offit book talks about how parents of children with autism took this matter to court, but they had to take it to federal court and convince three judges-which they would much rather have it brought to a state court with a jury. Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in 1986. In this act was the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which if parent’s felt that their children were hurt by vaccines they would then sue the federal government. In this program are a list of vaccine injuries, and a child would be compensated if the studies showed that the vaccine did cause harm. There were so many claims about vaccines causing autism in 1999-2007 that they decided to try the claims together. There were three different theories claiming that vaccines cause autism: MMR caused autism, thimerosal caused autism, and the combination of the two caused autism. The rest of the chapter talks about specific cases that were on trial.

Even though these readings were quite different, both had a common underlying factor; the factor being these “activists/petitioners” have a strong belief that vaccines are in fact causing autism to happen in their children. We learned in Kerr’s study that uncertainty is apparent throughout his research, it is very hard for people to answer the five questions of uncertainty pertaining to vaccines causing autism. So if there is so much uncertainty and very limited scientific evidence that these vaccines are causing autism in children, why do you feel like over 5,000 cases were tried in vaccine courts between 1999-2007? Do you believe that government officials have that much effect in what they say about this issue? When Kerr mentions the fact that they can’t say things with such bold and direct claims as activists does that maybe cause others to be skeptical of the issue?

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  1. Kerr made a main point in his writing of describing how medicals and activists construct the message differently when it comes to the vaccine-autism situation. Activists have been direct and simple about the message they want to project: mercury containing vaccines lead to autism. Where the public seems to gain uncertainty comes from the scientists and mainstream medicals. Scientists embrace uncertainties and note the limitations in their findings using null hypothesis’s and the public who often knows little about science wants exact answers of something. In the absence of certainty, the public listens to the emotional message that offers them hope. Even if they cannot back it up with fact, if someone hears that there is a cause to autism they can make sure their child avoids, they can feel a comforts in this. They will also tend to listen to authority leaders in their communities, government, and religious establishments. This may be a good explanation of why even though the public is uncertain, they still persist to have court cases over the issue.

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