By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 08/03/2019

This week a new research paper concluded, again, that there is no link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine and autism.

It almost seems mundane to report on, given we established many years ago that there was no such link and the persistent myth was based on fraudulent ‘research’. But as a friend and family member of people on the autism spectrum, and having worked for several years in disability care, I find it personally offensive that this malicious myth persists.

Putting aside the fact they’re completely wrong, I despise that they treat autism as something so sinister and shameful. Our autistic family members, colleagues, friends and neighbours deserve so much better than this. But the question remains: how should we report on these issues when they arise?

Dip a toe into the subject of science communication, and you will quickly stumble upon the ‘deficit model’. That’s the typical method of disseminating information – people don’t know what I want them to know, so I’ll fill them to the gills with facts – which has been roundly rejected as not being terribly useful.

We have to engage with people in more ways than just showeirng them with information if we have any hope of changing minds. But it’s really hard when they want to tell you your kid, sibling, cousin, friend, colleague is ‘vaccine injured’.

The author in Antarctica, which is definitely not a big wall of ice.

This past weekend I watched the Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, about the Flat Earth community. I was particularly struck by an Astronomy on Tap talk that touched on many of these issues: that we should see Flat Earthers as lost scientists, who have the right idea of challenging norms and seeking evidence, but who have been led astray.

But then, it was painful to watch these people undertaking legitimate experiments – which I am very much in favour of – and then dismissing the results when they didn’t match their predetermined expectations.

They’d also think I’m a liar in the pocket of ‘Big NASA’ since I’ve been to Antarctica, which they think is really a big ice wall bordering the Flat Earth. That’s more than a little hard to swallow.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about how we – scientists and science communicators – respond to these issues of denialism.

At the Science Media Centre, we assist journalists to put together informed, evidence-based stories. We grapple with issues like how do we balance refuting poor research or outlandish claims with not wanting to draw undue attention to something that might otherwise go unnoticed.

In this case, the societal importance of the 20-year-old hoax of Andrew Wakefield’s initial Lancet paper deserves to be highlighted. This case of scientific fraud has had reverberating impacts in our society, and it’s newsworthy to report those additional findings that further cement the good news story: that the MMR vaccination is safe, it doesn’t cause autism, but it does protect our most vulnerable against three serious diseases. If you don’t know your vaccination status, you should seriously consider getting a booster shot to ensure you’re up to date.

Science and scientists haven’t always done right by society. We will always be, rightfully so, held to the horrors of Henrietta Lacks, the black men of Tuskegee, and thalidomide. That means it’s important for the science sector to call out the Wakefield fraud. To vehemently oppose those who maliciously turn the tools of science against the good of the people.

But are we trying to change people’s hearts and minds? Not in our role. Our aim will always be to ensure journalists have the best tools to report an internationally-important story. Especially when we are – once again – in the midst of a measles outbreak in parts of the country. (Mumps was so 2018.)

It’s not reasonable to think you can only trumpet good news stories when the Northland DHB has to expend its precious communications resourcing refuting anti-vaccination rhetoric around the Meningococcal W outbreak in its region.

The region’s targeted vaccination campaign will save lives, and yet the DHB is forced to respond to social media efforts to create fake news about coerced or unconsented vaccinations. Should the DHB leave those rumours to fester and multiply? Of course not: telling the good news story isn’t enough.

Vaccines are safe, scientists aren’t paid enough to lie about this stuff and when they do (eyes on you, Wakefield) they are found out and roundly vilified and debunked. That’s why we have to report on these continued findings, to build the base of evidence for the benefits of vaccines, in the face of toxic opposition.

Are we changing the minds of those who are set against the findings of science? No, probably not. But if we can support the media to tell evidence-based stories then perhaps there are people in between who will see where the weight of evidence lies. Who will be rightfully concerned about doing right by their children, and will see that they can do so by vaccinating against the diseases that once killed so many of our kids.

If there’s a battle to be won in the disinformation war against vaccinations, it won’t be in a single paper about the MMR-autism non-link, but that’s not a good enough reason to refrain from loudly proclaiming that study’s findings. Because it’s emotional for us, too.