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Misreporting MMR

Posted by Ed on May 23, 2003

The BMJ today has a report about the media (mis)handling of the MMR debate. Following a paper in the Lancet (A J Wakefield, S H Murch, A Anthony, J Linnell, D M Casson, M Malik, M Berelowitz, A P Dhillon, M A Thomson, P Harvey et al., Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, The Lancet, Volume 351, Issue 9103, 28 February 1998, Pages 637-641.) about a possible association between MMR (measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) and autism, the usual hysterical reaction of the media (not just the tabloid press, this time) led to a dangerous decline in uptake of the vaccine in some parts of Britain.

The authors stated in the Discussion of the original paper:

We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described.

but even the vaguest speculation was enough to set the hacks off. Since then the debate has raged, despite the vast majority of the evidence being totally supportive of the combined MMR vaccine. The BMJ report states that:

“Although almost all scientific experts rejected the claim of a link between MMR and autism, 53% of those [the people] surveyed at the height of the media coverage of the issues assumed that because both sides of the debate received equal media coverage, there must be equal evidence for each. Only 23% of the population were aware that the bulk of evidence favoured supporters of the vaccine,” says the study.

The Department of Health has extensive information on MMR, and concludes:

The latest scientific evidence shows no link between MMR and long-term problems such as autism and inflammatory bowel disease, that separate vaccines are worse for children than MMR and that MMR remains the safest way to protect children against these three potentially serious diseases.

And finally, the WHO states:

WHO stresses the importance of scientifically evaluating rumours, anecdotal reports, rumours and speculation about the safety of vaccines. The Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety has recently published its guidelines for assessing causality in this context in the Weekly Epidemiology Record. WHO is not aware of any scientific evidence that meets the criteria laid out by the Committee that might substantiate an association between autism and MMR vaccines.

Read the report here.

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