Wednesday 24 January 2024

The MMR blame game

The usual people on Twitter were scoring easy retweets last week when the resurgence of measles was in the news.

I'm as happy as the next man to take a pop at the Daily Mail's health coverage (take the way they're reported this useful study about disposable vapes today, for example), but it is a bit much to blame news articles from 20 years ago for the post-Covid decline in measles vaccinations, especially when there are better people to blame.

As I say in The Critic...

If we’re going hark back to 2002 to find a culprit for the current situation, why not go back another four years to where it all started in The Lancet? If Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study linking the MMR vaccine to gastrointestinal disease and autism hadn’t been published in one of the world’s top medical journals, he may still have made a career for himself as a celebrity anti-vaxxer, but it is unlikely that the newspapers would have taken his claims seriously if he had been a mere blogger. 

One thing about the Wakefield affair that isn’t talked about enough is that even if the study had not been fraudulent it was unworthy of publication in a journal of The Lancet’s stature. It involved just twelve children, eight of whom had parents who believed the MMR vaccine had something to do with their behavioural disorders. As it transpired, the children had not spontaneously presented themselves at a hospital but had been hand-picked by Wakefield to create a narrative, but it was feeble evidence either way and amounted to little more than hearsay. The decision of The Lancet’s editor Richard Horton to publish the study gave it far more publicity and gravitas than it would have deserved even if it were an honest piece of research. It should have come as no surprise when it led to an international health scare.

By 2004, the MMR-autism narrative had fallen apart and Wakefield’s financial interests in the scare had been exposed, but Horton did not fully retract the study until the General Medical Council struck Wakefield off the Medical Register and described his conduct as “dishonest and irresponsible” in 2010, twelve years after it was published. According to Brian Deer, who uncovered Wakefield’s fraud in the Sunday Times, Horton was opposed to the GMC getting involved in the matter at all.


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