Vaccine-Autism Debate Moves to Small Screen

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For Dr. Peter Hotez, who has a 15-year-old autistic daughter, life is a daily struggle— from getting her dressed to finding a child psychiatrist to help the family deal with her need for rigidity and routine.

As a parent, Hotez wants a cure and better treatments for this unrelenting disorder that strikes nearly 150 in 1,000 American children.

But as a doctor who is constantly being asked by parents whether autism is caused by childhood vaccines, he worries that "unfounded science" could stand in the way of real research to help his daughter.

"Television is powerful and can create enough buzz to keep people concerned," Hotez told ABCNEWS.com. "But the overwhelming evidence is that the cause is genetic."

Hotez, a vaccine researcher at the George Washington University, is concerned about a fictional television show that taps into a belief by anti-vaccine groups that autism may be caused by mercury used in flu vaccines.

Today, ABC will premiere "Eli Stone," a legal show it calls a "drama-dy with fantastical elements." In the first story line, a jury awards the mother of an autistic child $5.2 million in damages after it is revealed that the CEO of a vaccine maker kept his daughter from getting the company's mercury-based vaccine.

Major health authorities, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization, have all studied and rejected possible links between autism and vaccines.

Doctors say giving credence to that link would lead to a decline in immunization rates and could result in the deaths of hundreds of children. Last year, 74 children died of influenza and more than 300 have died in the last four years, according to the CDC.

Public Health Impact

At the heart of the debate is whether television shows created purely for entertainment can have a negative impact on public health.

"The claims of anti-vaccine groups fly in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence," said Hotez. "It's like religious fanaticism believing that mercury causes autism, and it's very frustrating for me because it distracts away from our genetic research efforts and services for our kids."

Autism, a wide spectrum of neurological disorders, affects 1.5 million adults and children at a cost of $35 billion annually, according to the Autism Society of America.

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics fired off a letter to network executives urging them to cancel the show. ABC refused, but agreed to air a disclaimer and a link to the CDC's autism site.

The show's producers say it is "even-handed" and presents both sides. They say they never intended to suggest that children should not be vaccinated and argue that viewers do not look to fiction for medical information.

"ABC has not responded formally to us by letter, e-mail or phone call," said Dr. Rene Jenkins, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We are very disappointed about that."

Jenkins said of the disclaimer, "The network is taking commendable efforts," but "we are still concerned."

The level of concern prompted the pediatrics organization to take the unusual step of releasing — several days early — a study that it said further discredits the dangers of mercury in vaccines.

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