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The painful legacy of the MMR scare

2013 May 3
by Paul Vallely

My antennae twitched the other day at an interview on the radio in which Professor John Ashton, president of the nation’s public health doctors, pronounced that independent schools could form “reservoirs of disease” which might lead to another outbreak of infectious disease like the measles epidemic in south Wales.

This is, apparently, because they are full of middle-class children whose parents refused to have them vaccinated during the MMR scare, as well as overseas pupils with unknown immunisation records. Such folk, he later added, are as dodgy as groups such as gypsies and travellers, who he says have previously spread the disease.

The said schools were, predictably enough, outraged. The chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, Dr Christopher Ray, who is High Master of Manchester Grammar School, said the picture painted by Dr Ashton of the independent school sector’s approach to health was “woefully inaccurate”.  Such schools had close links with the NHS, and their policies were highly regulated. Another head accused Dr Ashton of “peddling emotive opinions without regard for accuracy”.

Professor Ashton’s tone offers a salutary reminder of an aspect of the MMR controversy which has generally been forgotten in the concern at the current measles outbreak in which one man has died.  But first I must declare an interest.

My wife and I did not give our son the MMR. The scare around the triple vaccine was couched in fears that it might trigger autism in a few susceptible individuals. But the later discredited research on which the worries were based also suggested children who had had the jab might develop a serious bowel condition called Crohn’s Disease – from which our son’s aunt suffers. Moreover his cousin had such a bad reaction to his first MMR jab that they had to admit him to hospital to do the second. And our boy had exhibited a spectacular series of allergic reactions to a wide variety of foods, colourings, flavourings and additives as a baby. We decided to have the three vaccines administered singly. There seemed no downside to that.

Doctors and politicians did not agree. Separately injecting the three same vaccines would undermine the MMR public health strategy, they said. Families would miss some vaccines, or forget to have the boosters done. To ensure this could not happen the government in 1998 withdrew the importation licence for the single vaccines leaving concerned parents with the bald choice of the MMR or nothing. Government bullying tactics backfired when large numbers of parents chose nothing, though many, like us, traversed the country, or even went abroad, to find the separate antigens.

When the single vaccines were available MMR uptake fell but it was matched by an uptake in the separate jabs. Only when the government banned the separate jabs did vaccinations overall significantly fall.

The MMR controversy has been blamed on bad science and hysterical parents (though I never saw what was hysterical about the application of the precautionary principle).  But those were not the only factors. A key component was a political and medical arrogance which made a cavalier succession of inaccurate broad-brush statements – with ill-founded hints that the separate vaccines were not effective – to rebuff parents’ anxieties rather than owning up to the fact that single vaccines were just too untidy for the public health strategists.

All that is now long forgotten. But, as Professor Ashton has reminded us, high-handed patronising arrogant assertions by the medical establishment live on. And then they wonder why the public does not always believe everything they say.

Paul Vallely is writing a biography of Pope Francis from Bloomsbury Publishing

One Response
  1. May 8, 2013

    Paul, this is a really interesting perspective. However,
    a. you were clearly a lot more thoughtful than most
    b. I think you pass over the main issue here–the publication and then media dissemination of false and discredited research.
    Whatever else was going on, this also showed the corrosive effect on science and medicine of our media culture.

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