The legacy of the MMR debacle

By Siouxsie Wiles 15/04/2013

Wales in currently in the grip of a measles epidemic, with nearly 700 people diagnosed with the highly contagious virus since the outbreak began in November last year. To put this in perspective, in 2012 there were 2,016 cases of measles in the WHOLE of England and Wales, with 116 of those in Wales.

Measles is preventable with the combined Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine, more commonly known as MMR. Rates of MMR uptake in the UK are well below the 95% needed for herd immunity to protect those too young or vulnerable to be vaccinated. In 2011-2012, uptake rates for the 2 doses stood at 86% in England and 82.4% in Wales. Dr Meirion Evans of Public Health Wales has said that there are an estimated 40,000 children across Wales who have not been vaccinated and that the number of cases could easily double. This is a frightening prospect as measles can mean more than just a fever and rash – it can also lead to ear infections, pneumonia, inflammation of the brain and death.

Most people would now agree that the low uptake rates for MMR are a result of a now retracted paper by discredited gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield (who was struck off by the medical register by the General Medical Council in the UK in 2010) linking the MMR vaccine with autism, the refusal of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to disclose whether his son Leo had been vaccinated, and some pretty shocking media coverage. While the health service in Wales has been setting up mass drop in vaccination clinics in an attempt to reduce the pool of potential measles victims, it was therefore a strange and dangerous decision by the Independent newspaper’s Health Editor, Jeremy Laurance to run a press release from Wakefield along with an article which appeared on the front page of the newspaper under the headline:

MMR scare doctor Andrew Wakefield breaks his silence:
Measles outbreak in Wales proves I was right

Wakefield claims that the drop in vaccination was due to the government’s decision not to grant an import licence for single vaccines, which at the time he was suggesting be offered in place of the MMR vaccine. Turns out he had a vested interest in pushing single vaccines, which would have increased the time taken before children were fully protected against measles, mumps and rubella. True, the article written by Laurance is critical of Wakefield, but why provide any fuel for the fire? Perhaps this description of Laurance from the Independent’s webpage says all we need to know:

Jeremy Laurance is Health Editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.

0 Responses to “The legacy of the MMR debacle”

  • Today’s coverage in the Guardian reports that around 10% of all the measles cases diagnosed have required hospitalisation. That should lay to rest the myth put about by anti-vaccinators that it isn’t a serious disease.

  • That is quite an important point, as in anti-vax circles it seems very common to hear the idea that in the past measles was considered just an ordinary childhood disease that no-one was overly concerned about, so they shouldn’t be now either.

    However, it must be viewed from the perspective now that high childhood mortality rates are unnecessary and unacceptable, and that measles is really only relatively benign when compared to illnesses such as polio or diphtheria.