How do we know what health message to trust about autism and vaccines?

January 7, 2011

121_2191bWell, the issue that one of the students in my undergraduate students focused on last semester — in the designing health messages class — was autism and vaccines. She explained how the medical research that led to media stories about vaccines and autism was based on a small sample size of 12 children and that 10 of 13 of the original researchers who authored the study no longer stand behind its conclusion that there is a link between autism and vaccines. Now, we have a new story in a medical journal —  telling how the results in the original publication were ‘made up’. See http://kottke.org/11/01/autism-study-fraudulent

As consumers of news and health information, we can question samples sizes. We can question the ways that studies are conducted, including whether there were too few or too many control variables. We can question the lack of representativeness of a study — the failure to include males and females, or the absence of different age groups and various sociodemographic audiences, for example. But we do have to ‘trust’ that the researchers accurately represent what actually happens in the conduct of a study. Just as we trust grocers to put expiration dates on our food labels that reflect actual dates, that bankers take precautions to safeguard our accounts, that pilots and bus drivers and auto mechanics are honest when they say they have been trained to do the work that we trust them to do. And for the most part, in all of these cases, and in medical research as well —  we can trust… But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask questions. And it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t look for the credentials to support our trust…

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One Response to “How do we know what health message to trust about autism and vaccines?”

  1. Karen says:

    Yes, I had read this about the sampling errors and wrong conclusions drawn from this study on the correlation between autism and vaccines. Quite a shame. And, the fact that the reported cases of measles have risen dramatically in 2008, shows that people are listening and acting on what is being communicated to them, but are not asking enough questions!

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