Taboo topics: Sex, politics, religion... and vaccines?

Since Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a now-discredited paper linking measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccines to autism, discussions around immunization have become increasingly heated. The rise of the internet has contributed too, with vaccine adverse events magnified and stripped of context in online echo chambers.

In this highly polarized environment, pro-vaccine scientists have been sent hate mail and death threats for speaking out in favor of immunization. The threats could cause some to think twice before talking up vaccines. Yet, Reuters reports, the opposite is also true. Openly questioning the safety of vaccines is a risky move for scientists. This is what Finnish neurologist Markku Partinen discovered when he first reported a link between GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) swine flu vaccine and narcolepsy.

Partinen says he suffered ridicule from other scientists, some of whom questioned his methods, motives and mental stability. Colleagues began crossing the street to avoid him. The research was taken first to the New England Journal of Medicine, but the journal declined the paper. Next, Partinen approached The Lancet--the journal that published the Wakefield MMR paper--but was rejected once again. Rejection of research is nothing unusual, but Partinen said the opposition of The Lancet was "quite exceptional." With the memory of Wakefield still fresh, no journal wants to get stung by publishing vaccine data that later proves unreliable. By the time Partinen published the paper in PLoS ONE, other scientists had replicated the findings.

Other researchers report similar problems to Partinen's. Finnish diabetes researcher Outi Vaarala reports being harangued by people on both sides of the argument when she moved over to vaccinology. One side criticized her for undermining immunization, the other called on her to join the antivaccine movement. "There's not the kind of open discussion we used to have. You're afraid you will lose your whole career if you say something bad. When you're dealing with vaccine it suddenly becomes like working in politics, or religion," Vaarala told Reuters.

- here's the Reuters report