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The MMR Scare: The Story Behind The Story

April 25, 2013

Last week the Daily Mail reported that 2 million children risked catching measles as a result of the MMR scare. It is a scare that the paper knows all about, having been in the forefront of running a series of articles over the years that urged parents to beware of the multiple vaccination and its supposed links to autism.

The Mail’s headlines speak for themselves: “MMR killed my daughter”; “MMR fears gain support”; “New evidence ‘shows MMR link to autism'”; “MMR safe? Baloney. This is one scandal that’s getting worse”; “Scientists fear MMR link to autism”; “Why I wouldn’t give my baby the MMR jab”. This is but a small proportion of the negative articles published by the paper.

But the Mail, though the most forceful and repetitive of newspapers, was certainly not alone in the media in making too much of the opinions advanced in 1998 by the now discredited Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose research led to fears about a link with autism.

Editors were able to have a sense of confidence about his credibility because his views were based on a research paper (now retracted) carried in the Lancet, one of the most respected of the medical journals that publish peer-reviewed articles.

There were plenty of anti-MMR stories in the Daily Express, the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere, including regional papers, such as the South Wales Evening Post, which is based in Swansea, where the latest measles outbreak has occurred.

Part of the reason was a conviction that the medical authorities, which were advocating MMR, might be wrong. And those authorities were, of course, linked to the government. It was abundantly clear that the rightwing press’s championing of Wakefield was based on its hostility towards Tony Blair’s Labour government. There was an unsavoury attempt to press the prime minister into saying whether or not he had allowed his son, Leo, to have the vaccine, which he refused to do, arguing that it was a private family matter.

A 2003 paper by the Economic and Social Research Council found that, in the period between January and September 2002, 32% of all the stories about the MMR scare mentioned Leo Blair.

It was not until 2004, following an investigation by reporter Brian Deer in the Sunday Times, that the Lancet admitted Wakefield’s research was flawed.

Even so, newspapers continued to give his views credence by carrying stories suggesting there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. It’s fair to say that the readers of all newspapers, including those who read the Guardian, were exercised by the media mood music.

In July 2007, when Wakefield was facing a General Medical Council hearing, the Observer ran an article headlined: “New health fears over big surge in autism”. It also carried an interview with Wakefield – referring to him as the doctor at the heart of the autism row – in which he maintained he had “told the truth”.

Two weeks ago, the Independent ran a front-page story headlined: “MMR scare doctor: this outbreak proves I was right”. In response to a storm of protest, its editor, Chris Blackhurst, said the paper should have made clear its contempt for Wakefield. It showed that the public had, at last, turned against the doctor – and the media that give him disproportionate coverage.

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