MMR Vaccine: Hang your heads in shame

4th June 2011 By Hamish Birrell

Each country has their own particular brand of bullshit. In America they are terrified of thimerosal, the preservative used in vaccinations. Jim Carrey goes on chatshows and writes articles rallying against the “toxins” in vaccines, whilst arguing that we should only be inoculated against “the most serious threats”. In France it is the hepatitis B vaccine – anecdotal reports linked it with multiple sclerosis and suddenly the numbers taking the vaccine started to plummet. And in the UK it is MMR, inspired by the fraudulent physician Andrew Wakefield; the media had a field day, whipped into a frenzy by the dubious claims of a dodgy doctor.

But it doesn’t really matter what the scandal is, for the end result is always the same: falling vaccination rates. That tiny seed of doubt planted in parents’ minds, grows into a nagging fear and in the end many decide it’s “better to be safe than sorry” and don’t get their children vaccinated.

In Britain, MMR vaccination compliance fell from 92 percent in 1996 to 84 percent six years later. In France, where the fear wasn’t even of MMR, but of the hepatitis B vaccination, MMR compliance fell as low as 85 percent.

And we are now seeing the consequences.

Measles is an infection of the respiratory system. In most cases it is extremely nasty, but not life-threatening, however complications (often neurological) are common.

The main danger though is to those who are immunocompromised, where the fatality rate is around 30 percent. Outbreaks spread rapidly because measles is so contagious – meaning that the most vulnerable come into contact with the measles virus all too often.

France is currently in the middle of an epidemic. Over 7000 cases have been reported this year – more than in the whole of 2010. In the first four months of this epidemic there were thirteen cases with serious neurological complications and two deaths from associated pneumonia. And now it is spreading across the channel, with infection rates in the UK ten times as high as in a similar period last year.

In some cases complications will arise. At the very least, many more children will be exposed to a horrible virus. Hopefully, we won’t see quite the same epidemic as France, but as a nation we are now more susceptible than we were a couple of decades ago – and that is the very real consequence of poor journalism.

The original coverage of Wakefield’s 1998 study was actually fairly balanced, it was only a number of years later that the scare started to take off.

Spurred by our Prime Minister’s refusal to reveal whether he had decided to have his child vaccinated, the newspapers smelt a controversy and called in medical heavyweights such as Nigella Lawson, Fiona Phillips and Carol Vorderman. Suddenly the ‘expert’ was the arbiter, empirical evidence had been replaced with the fears of scared celebrity mothers and a study later denounced as “dishonest” and “misleading” by the General Medical Council was held up as conclusive proof of the link between the MMR vaccination and autism.

So when the child of the parents who decided it was “better to be safe than sorry” catches measles, we now at least know who to blame: those who propagated the doubtful findings of a rogue doctor.

Hamish Birrell