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New TV show bolsters autism myth, doctors say

/ Source: The Associated Press

America's largest pediatricians' group said ABC should cancel the first episode of a new TV series because it perpetuates the myth that vaccines can cause autism.

ABC's new drama, "Eli Stone," debuts on Thursday. It features British actor Jonny Lee Miller as a prophet-like lawyer who in the opening episode argues in court that a flu vaccine made a child autistic. When it is revealed in court that an executive at the fictional vaccine maker didn't allow his own child to get the shot, jurors side with the family, giving them a huge award.

The show's co-creators say they are not anti-vaccine and would be upset if parents chose not to immunize their children after seeing the show.

But, said Dr. Renee R. Jenkins, president of the influential American Academy of Pediatrics, "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."

"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," Jenkins said in a statement Monday.

Autism is a complex disorder featuring repetitive behaviors and poor social interaction and communication skills. Scientists generally believe that genetics plays a role in causing the disorder; a theory that a mercury-based preservative once widely used in childhood vaccines is to blame has been repeatedly discounted in scientific studies.

The academy released the text of a letter Jenkins wrote on Friday, addressed to Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group. In the letter, Jenkins writes that many viewers "trust the health information presented on fictional television shows, which influences their decisions about health care. "

Jenkins noted that erroneous reports in the United Kingdom linking the measles vaccine to autism prompted a decline in vaccination and the worst outbreak of measles in two decades.

Greg Berlanti, a co-creator of the show, said the episode is fictional but designed "to participate in what is a national conversation" about a controversial subject. He said the boy who plays the autistic child has autism, but that the show's producers have no connection with advocates involved in the autism debate.

"We would be deeply upset" if parents opted against vaccination because of the episode, Berlanti said.

Marc Guggenheim, who helped create the show, said the first episode shows how a fictional company covered up a study that raised questions about its product, and that the message is really about "the downside of the corporatization of America."