ABC defends show against outcry by pediatricians

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The ABC network said on Monday it will go ahead with plans to air an episode of its new legal drama “Eli Stone” despite objections from pediatricians who say the show may discourage parents from having their children immunized.

The debut episode features the show’s title character and hero, a trial lawyer for big corporations who decides to fight for the little guy, convincing a jury that a mercury-based preservative in a vaccine caused a child’s autism.

On the show, a jury awards the boy’s mother $5.2 million in damages after it is revealed the CEO of the vaccine maker kept his own daughter from getting the company’s vaccine because of autism concerns.

The “Eli Stone” plot ventures into a highly charged debate between the U.S. medical establishment and some parents and advocates for autistic children over the safety of vaccines for youngsters.

Critics of childhood immunization have argued that thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative formerly used in vaccines, is a primary cause of an autism in young children.

Major health authorities, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), cite numerous studies that rule out any scientific link between autism and vaccines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, reacting to a synopsis of the “Eli Stone” episode in a recent New York Times article, issued a statement criticizing the show as “leaving audiences with the destructive idea that vaccines do cause autism.”

The academy also made public a letter to ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Co., calling on the network to cancel the show’s premiere episode, which is scheduled to air Thursday.

“Many people trust the health information presented on fictional television shows, which influence their decisions about heath care,” academy president Dr. Renee Jenkins wrote in a letter to Disney-ABC Television Group President Anne Sweeney.

ABC said it plans to broadcast the episode without changes, but would run a disclaimer at the opening of the show stating the story is fictional. A message at the end will refer viewers to a CDC Web site for information about autism.

The show’s two creators, Greg Berlanti and Marc Guggenheim, disputed the notion that their show would frighten parents away from vaccines.

“We actually share the concern of the American Academy of Pediatrics. We believe that children should be vaccinated,” Berlanti told Reuters. But he also said, “We hope that people do watch the episode and draw their own conclusions.”

Jenkins, in her letter to ABC, said the pediatricians group is “alarmed that this program could lead to a tragic decline in the immunization rate.”

“In the United Kingdom, erroneous reports linking the measles vaccine to autism prompted a decline in vaccination and the worst outbreak of measles in two decades, including the deaths of several children,” Jenkins wrote.

Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Todd Eastham