Tuesday, January 29, 2008

New ABC drama fuels controversy over autism/vaccine debate

The ABC drama, "Eli Stone," premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. Jan. 31, and according to a Jan. 23 NY Times story, the pilot will focus on the controversial belief by some that autism is caused by childhood vaccines. The NY Times story explains that prominent scientific organizations have dismissed the connection between vaccines and autism.

In the episode, the main character, Eli Stone, takes the case of a mother who sues because she says a vaccine preservative with mercury caused her child's autism. According to the NY Times, "reams of scientific studies by the leading American health authorities have failed to establish a causal link between the preservative and autism. Since the preservative was largely removed from childhood vaccines in 2001, autism rates have not declined."

The premise of "Eli Stone" is that the title character, a lawyer, begins having visions due to a brain aneurysm, which causes him to refocus his life and law practice from defending corporations like pharmaceutical companies to instead helping "the little guy."

Now the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has entered the discussion, asking that ABC pull the episode because it fears parents will receive incorrect information about the risks of childhood vaccines.

The AAP statement released Jan. 28 said: "'A television show that perpetuates the myth that vaccines cause autism is the height of reckless irresponsibility on the part of ABC and its parent company, The Walt Disney Co.,' said Renee R. Jenkins, MD, FAAP, president of the AAP. 'If parents watch this program and choose to deny their children immunizations, ABC will share in the responsibility for the suffering and deaths that occur as a result. The consequences of a decline in immunization rates could be devastating to the health of our nation’s children.'"

David Kirby of The Huffington Post calls the AAP request to pull the episode "censorship." He writes, "if I were Dr. Jenkins, I would be far more concerned about real news happening in the real world -- events that not only suggest the possibility of some sort of link between mercury, vaccines and autism, but might alarm parents more than any fictional account written for ratings-grabbing mass entertainment." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-kirby/pediatricians-abc-and-ce_b_83472.html

The earlier NY Times article also pointed out that ABC is potentially alienating its numerous pharmaceutical advertisers with the autism/vaccine story line. "Eli Lilly & Company, which developed thimerosal (the mercury-based preservative pulled in 2001), and the two companies that now make the bulk of childhood vaccines used in the United States, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi-Aventis, spent an estimated $138 million for advertising on ABC last year, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus, though little to none of it was spent advertising vaccines."

Greg Berlanti, a co-creator and an executive producer of "Eli Stone," told the NY Times that he thinks that the script shows the several sides of the autism/vaccine argument. “I think they wanted us to do our homework about all of it, which we did,” he said.

I haven't seen the show yet, but I am fearful when entertainment TV drama tries to tackle complex topics, because in ramping up the drama to keep the audience engaged, important facts sometimes get left out. And with fewer and fewer people going to news sources for information, it scares me to think someone might get a large portion of his/her medical information from a TV drama. I realize that sometimes when a TV drama tackles medical topics, it ends up educating many people who otherwise wouldn't have the information. Plots revolving around cancer, AIDS, and heart disease have led to early detection for some audience members who have gone to the doctor after seeing a TV show. But I don't know that the plot of the "Eli Stone" pilot will really "help" anyone; it will just fuel the fire of an already acrimonious controversy.