Tonight, ABC will air the first episode of a new legal drama called Eli Stone. And what better way to make a drama riveting than to suggest that a debunked theory about the cause of autism is actually true?

In the episode, a fictitious vaccine additive called mercuritol acts as a stand-in for the real thing — thimerosal, a preservative commonly used in childhood vaccines before 1999. In that year, the U.S. largely removed thimerosal from the market after concerns arose about the amount of mercury contained in it. High levels of mercury can lead to a wide array of health concerns, especially in infants and children.

There has been no proven scientific connection between thimerosal and autism, and since being pulled from the market in the U.S. autism rates have not significantly dropped. But that didn’t stop the writers of the Eli Stone episode from suggesting otherwise and implicating the vaccine additive connection.

The problem? Parents fearing that such a connection really does exist will decline to immunize their children from common maladies, actually increasing the risk to their children’s health.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also weighed in against the airing of the episode:

While the show includes statements that science has refuted any link between autism and vaccines, the episode’s conclusion delivers a contrary impression; the jury awards the mother $5.2 million, leaving audiences with the destructive idea that vaccines do cause autism.

“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.,” said Renee R. Jenkins, MD, FAAP, president of the AAP.

“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.”

Perhaps that’s bit of hyperbole to make the point, but it’s a point nevertheless well taken. Parents should not forgo immunizations just because of something they see on TV (and I sincerely hope most parents wouldn’t even consider doing so!).