Scientists vs. “Barking Mad” Bloggers

From the joint annual meeting of the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, Washington, D.C.

On Monday morning, I caught the last half hour of a packed panel discussion, “Communicating Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Issues to the Public.”

The panelists were Paul Offit, M.D., of the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Lawrence Altman, M.D., who writes about science and medicine for the New York Times, Simon Dobson, M.D., of the BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Canada, Vivienne Parry, BSc, of the UK Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunizations, and Robert Beck, J.D., of the CDC.

Disclaimer: I was in the “overflow room” because the main room was booked and the hall monitors were guarding the door and weren’t letting anyone else in. So, I’m not 100% sure who said what. But just in that last half hour, I heard several interesting comments.

Because Ms. Parry was the only woman on the panel, I know she was the one who made the important point that doctors and scientists are often hesitant to comment on blogs that spread unfounded rumors and medical misinformation.  When there is an information vacuum, someone will fill it, Ms. Parry said, and there are plenty of websites created by people whom she Britishly described as “barking mad.”  She also stressed that it is important for scientists and physicians to be honest when there is a large-scale medical emergency, such as a flu pandemic, and be prepared to tell the media about potential problems and to admit that they don’t have all the answers.

Another panelist (I think Dr. Offit) noted that the internet can be “a wonderful source of awful information.” The panelists alluded to the ongoing issue of whether childhood vaccines are linked to autism. Another panelist (I think Dr. Altman) noted that, in the days of the polio vaccine, people were actively suffering and dying from polio, so people were ready and willing to get vaccinated. Today, few parents in the U.S. have seen anyone suffering and dying from a vaccine-preventable illness, and what’s needed is a “selling of shared risk,” to promote the importance of childhood vaccinations.

Without doctors and scientists filling the information vacuum, people who turn to the internet will find plenty of awful information and barking mad bloggers. The panelists encouraged the meeting attendees to refer patients to reputable websites, such as www.cdc.gov, for medical information that they can discuss with their doctors.

And, doctors, start your laptops, post comments, start your own blogs. Your thoughtful post may help someone you never meet make a better medical decision.

-Heidi Splete

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