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.