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Why are we facing one of the biggest outbreaks of measles in decades?

  • Comments (8)

My children were due their MMR vaccinations when the debate about the safety of the vaccine was at its peak. I remember vividly the hysteria that accompanied the publication of Andrew Wakefield’s paper in 1998. Parents talked about herd immunity, believing it would protect their child but not understanding they had to be part of the herd to make it work. Messing about with single vaccines resulted in many of my friends’ children never getting the full two doses. And there was a strongly held belief that measles, mumps and rubella were not dangerous - after all most of us had had them in childhood.

Why did a small-scale research study in the Lancet manage to have such a long-lasting detrimental impact on public confidence? Andrew Wakefield was heavily criticised at the time, and was finally struck off the GMC register in 2010, but the impact on public health was led entirely by the mainstream media.

They were happy to dedicate pages of news and opinion fanning the fears of vulnerable parents struggling to make the right decision for their children - because parents’ fears sell papers. From 1998 to 2004 when the Lancet eventually withdrew the paper, commentators were happy to give space to opinion writers describing their anxieties about MMR and raising suspicions about its safety to new groups of parents facing the vaccination question.

The outcome is that while vaccination rates are now back to a pre-Wakefield level of 93% the Health Protection Agency says there are still enough people unprotected to allow outbreaks to occur. This leaves some of our most vulnerable children, who do not access health services, at risk. There also remains an underlying suspicion about vaccination among some parents.

I watched with interest the media coverage of Wakefield’s downfall. Perhaps I was naive to think there would be a retraction by the popular press of the coverage that has undermined an essential element of our public health policy. So while we consider standards of press in public life perhaps there should be some discussion about standards in their reporting of medical research.

The real story about MMR is that infectious diseases can have devastating consequences and we should be grateful that we have the ability to prevent them. Public confidence is fragile and reporting of medical research has to be based on fact not opinion.

  • Comments (8)

Readers' comments (8)

  • George Kuchanny

    This fundamental problem is going to be with us forever now. Not only the papers but increasingly, the internet shall be carrying poorly researched 'news' items that, speaking frankly, pander to partially informed and elitist folk. By elitist I mean those of us who think we are special in some way and therefore exempt from exposing ourselves to any kind of risk no matter how small or how clear the benefit is.

    Elitists remain unswayed by considerations that include, for instance, the threat of becoming a carrier and passing on problems to those around them. Regulation is the only real answer. We cannot simply depend on well informed and responsible reportage. That would be very naive indeed.

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  • King Vulture

    To start with, people leap on any bit of research that seems to support their own existing position.

    Secondly, many media people have no understanding of science.

    Text books in the 1930s had measles as a serious illness (I think the one I am remembering had a mortality rate of 2 or 3 per cent for measles, and about 30 per cent for smallpox).


    I think many of the people who saw non-vaccination as sensible, probably think that non-organic food is really, really bad for you, and probably had no idea that back in the 1930s measles did really kill people.

    And a rare consequence of measles, is a slow-burning destruction of your brain, that is apparently invariably fatal: not something you would wish on anybody's kid.

    But I don't go with George's suggestion of compulsion - that can lead almost anywhere !

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  • Anonymous

    very convenient if you can find a small piece of research to support your own position. you can then blow it out of all proportion and sell it on to the media who will make a big meal out of it!

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  • tinkerbell

    Legislate -what round up the non-compliant mothers, snatch the babies from their arms?

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  • Anonymous

    Considering that a large proportion of the public appear to have no true concept of the severity of diseases like measles, whooping cough etc, as they have had (usually) no real experience of them, can the DoH not produce various hard-hitting adverts/short films for TV advert breaks. If these feature real stories/families' experiences, particularly regarding the impact on their child or other siblings (and especially any long-term effects) maybe people will realise just how dangerouse these diseases can be? Then, if they choose not to vaccinate their children, or their children are unable to be vaccinated, at least the parents are aware of the symptoms of the diseases and the risks involved!

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  • tinkerbell

    Anonymous | 7-Sep-2012 5:11 pm

    Seems a much more reasonable approach:)

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  • Anonymous

    Anonymous | 7-Sep-2012 5:11 pm

    That looks perfectly reasonable, although it is very difficult to educate people about anything.

    I've an idea that KV was alluding to sub-acute necrotising panencephalitis, and that would definitely make you think about the pros and cons of vaccination.

    'a large proportion of the public appear to have no true concept of the severity of diseases like measles, whooping cough etc, as they have had (usually) no real experience of them'

    is true specifically, and also more generally about many things: although it would presumably be impossible to contract smallpox now, I doubt that many clinicians would immediately identify a case of smallpox these days. That would not have been true, during the middle of the last century - what people have themselves experienced, influences things enormously.

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  • Anonymous

    I believe Dr Wakefield was struck off for his methods of recruitment to the trials, not because his research was wrong. I seem to recall that his results were reproducible in other countries too, but then that's not the discussion here.
    I would also suggest that people take a bit of time to look into the big drug companies, the billions they have been fined for misinformation and what is about to erupt concerning the selectivity of trial results and safety data that has and hasn't been published. Ben Goldacre has just written a book about it (Bad Pharma), there's lots of questions being asked now, particularly as Dr's are realising that what George's 'elitists' have been objecting to all this time might just have some foundation.
    Maybe the difference between people in this world is that some are asking the questions and others are demanding those people be controlled/quieted?

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