Peter Hotez is a rarity in the field of infectious disease. He is, at once, a brilliant vaccine scientist, a science diplomat to the world, a media expert, and an intransigent defender of the prowess of vaccines. I have had the pleasure to interact with Dr. Hotez several times and am always energized by his enthusiasm and passion for this field.
What many people might not know about Dr. Hotez is that he has a daughter with autism which is very significant given that much of the opposition to vaccines is driven by an erroneous debunked claim linking vaccines, thimerosal and whatever has anything to do with vaccines to this condition.
To combat this campaign of misinformation by providing an evidence-based defense of vaccines, along with an extensive discussion of cutting-edge theories and recent data about autism, Dr. Hotez wrote an excellent book. Vaccines Didn’t Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician, and Autism Dad, is to me, a tour de force in the field. I have read many book on vaccines and vaccine policies and this one stands out among all of them. Perhaps it is the way Dr. Hotez seamlessly weaves in his and his family’s experiences with Rachel’s autism. He covers the diagnosis, the daily trials and tribulations, the frustrations, and the successes.
Over 12 chapters, Dr. Hotez expertly addresses each vaccine “controversy” (“whack-a-mole”) and illustrates with data and scientific reasoning why such controversies are manufactured and, in my view, essentially arbitrary. He discusses the celebrity culture that abets the anti-vaccine movement as well as the history of the anti-vaccine movement in the US.
Vaccine programs such as GAVI are also detailed with an emphasis on how vaccination in developing countries are a crucial need and how vaccines against neglected tropical diseases are a major unmet need.
There are so many critical insights in this book that is hard to list the highlights. One aspect I took special interest in is Dr. Hotez’s interactions with the media, as this is something I do a lot of as well. Dr. Hotez hypothesizes that some of the misinformation is facilitated by the fact that scientists and physicians do not engage with the general public. as he notes:
“In a survey of 3,748 scientists, only about one-half have ever spoken with a reporter or science journalist about their research, while only 47 percent ever use social media to discuss their science. Only 24 percent have ever blogged about their science and research”
It can be no surprise then that“an overwhelming majority—81 percent—of Americans could not name a living scientist.”
Dr. Hotez also recognizes, as I came to during Ebola in 2014 that
“An added challenge is that public engagement is not usually considered a vital activity for a professor at an academic health center or university. These institutions depend on their faculty to generate revenue through clinical billing or research grants, and such public activities do not generally produce funds. Yet for someone like myself, committed to public engagement or aspiring to become a public intellectual, I have found that writing scientific papers and grant applications exclusively is seldom sufficient to persuade government leaders and policymakers to address a particular group of diseases or an approach to disease treatment and prevention”
I can’t recommend this book enough and hope it has a wide audience of physicians, parents, students, and policy makers. That the heroic Dr. Hotez is the subject of vicious primitive personal attacks is a disgusting fact he should not have to deal with and hopefully this book will help others realize what an asset he is.