SIRC – Media Watch 17-06-99
The MMR vaccine, still reeling from the reported link with autism cited in the Lancet in February 1998, has once again found itself a target of health fears this month. On June 02 the press was alive with a controversial study that claimed to have identified a link between the contraction of measles and mumps during childhood with an increased susceptibility to bowel disease in later life.
The "new" research on which these reports were based was actually published back in April in the American Journal of Gastroenterology and was conducted by a team from the Royal Free Hospital in London. At no point did their work mention the MMR vaccine itself; indeed, the study focused on 7,000 children who were born in1970 18 years prior to the introduction of the MMR vaccine into the UK. The scare headlines were obviously based on unsubstantiated inferences. If measles and mumps may increase the risk of bowel infections then does it not stand to reason that low doses of these diseases used for the purpose of vaccinations must also then pose a risk? Suppositions such as this are clearly irresponsible. Data collected for the study predominately relied upon parents' recollection of their children's illnesses, a technique that at best can be extremely tenuous. Moreover, in some of these cases almost a decade had elapsed between the incidences of disease and the date of the questionnaires.
The Independent suggests that the media's preoccupation with scare stories may reflect an over riding public mistrust of government policy with regard to health and science issues, but in this case as in many others the consequences of using fear as a marketing tool are potentially disastrous.
The last outbreak of measles in this country, in 1980, killed 17 children. The risks of measles and mumps causing fever, seizures and in extreme cases brain damage are well documented, the risks of the MMR vaccine are not. The proportion of children receiving the vaccine at 16 months has fallen from 85% to 75%. Dr Elizabeth Miller, of the Public Health Laboratory Service, said the large drop in the number of children under 16 months being immunised meant there was now a genuine risk of the first measles epidemic for a decade. Although the Lancet published Professor Brent Taylor's study on June 12 in which he was unable to identify a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, it is unlikely that the continuing conflicting barrage of information will do much to allay public fears surrounding its safety.