Junk Food & Junk journalism

A rare visit to a well known fast food establishment this weekend, and whilst waiting for my order I glanced through the papers to catch up on the financial armageddon.  I was shocked and angry (no really) to see a huge article about the MMR / Autism link, and a rally by various American celebs supporting his campaign.

The guy behind the whole campaign is Dr Andrew Wakefield, portrayed in the article as some saintly lone fighter for justice, rather than a scaremonger who’s been peddling this scare story to anyone who will listen, and stirring up the worst fears of concerned parents (and I say this both as a parent and as someone who knows Autism through experience).  He’s being investigated by the General Medical Council for:

  • He was being paid to conduct the study by solicitors representing parents who believed their children had been harmed by MMR, and failed to disclose this in his ethics review.
  • He ordered investigations “without the requisite paediatric qualifications”.
  • Acting “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in failing to disclose how patients were recruited for the study, and that some were paid to take part.
  • Performing colonoscopies, colon biopsies and lumbar punctures (“spinal taps”) on his research subjects without proper approval and contrary to the children’s clinical interests, when these diagnostic tests were not indicated by the children’s symptoms or medical history.
  • Conducting the study on a basis which was not approved by the hospital’s ethics committee.
  • Purchasing blood samples – for £5 each – from children present at his son’s birthday party, as described by Wakefield himself in a videotaped public conference.

(cheers, Wikipedia)

Over the years that he’s been pushing the story, there have been dozens of rigourous, well done studies into MMR & Autism, and not one has found any link.

As Ben Goldacre points out, Wakefield is not the only offender in this whole story, the journalists behind articles like these have a lot to answer for.

“Individuals like Wakefield must be free to have bad ideas. The media created the MMR hoax, and they maintained it diligently for 10 years. Their failure to recognise that fact demonstrates that they have learned nothing, and until they do, journalists and editors will continue to perpetrate the very same crimes, repeatedly, with increasingly grave consequences.”

Is this scaremongering?  Despite the best efforts of the NHS to keep parents informed (see this factsheet for example), vaccination rates have plummeted.  At the same time, incidences of Measles, Mumps and Reubella have soared. Remember, these are diseases that kill, that should have been eradicated by now.

This is nothing to do with personal choice (e.g. Tony Blair) as there will always be some people for whom the vaccines aren’t effective, so you try to make sure as many people as possible are vaccinated.  That way the disease is less likely to spread through the population and reach the vulnerable people.

Now I’m pretty sure it was the Express, but I can’t see any article at the online edition. It could well have been the Daily Mail, as this article is almost the same, word for word.  The Daily Express on the other hand look to be reporting the scientific facts, i.e. that dozens of scientific studies have failed to find a link between the MMR jab and Autism.

So, in summary:

The Doctor who started the scare is being investigated by the General Medical Council for dodgy ethics.
There is still no proven link between the MMR jab and Autism, despite dozens of studies.
The number of children being vaccinated is not getting back to the levels at which the general population is well protected.
Measles kills.  Outbreaks of Measles are increasing
Mumps doesn’t generally kill but can cause other problems.  Outbreaks of Mumps are increasing
Mumps doesn’t generally kill but can cause other problems.  Outbreaks of Rubella are increasing.

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About loidon

Technical support in an IT-centric academic department. Jack of all trades, master of none. Able to bluff on most subjects!

One response to “Junk Food & Junk journalism”

  1. loidon says :

    Update: “The BBC has reported that measles cases have “reached a 13 year high” with 1,049 cases in the first 10 months of 2008, more than the whole of last year. The latest figures are from the Health Protection Agency (HPA), which show that this is the first time the number of cases has topped 1,000 since 1995.”

    http://www.nhs.uk/news/2008/11November/Pages/MeaslessurgeQA.aspx

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