Too little, too late.
Yesterday, Dr. Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of a number of misconduct charges, related to his medical research. This has caused quite a buzz, as the press and other media speculate as to whether he will be struck off as a result.
In 1998, Dr. Wakefield published a paper which speculated on a link between a rare bowel disorder, autism, and the MMR vaccination. He suggested that parents should give their children the vaccines individually (measles, mumps, and rubella), rather than as a triple vaccine. The paper also seemed to suggest a link to the MMR vaccine and to autism.
Despite the many flaws in this research (small sample size, no permission from parents, etc.) the research was published. After its publication in The Lancet, the information was disseminated among the newspapers, gaining momentum at a furious pace. Before long, there were campaign groups, newspapers taking one side or the other, vox-pops of weeping parents and crippled children, etc.
Unfortunately, due in large part to the way the paper was reported, parents believed that they were doing the right thing in choosing to decline the MMR vaccination. They thought they were protecting their children from autism, a condition which must strike fear into the heart of any parent. What they should have been worried about was protecting their children from the crippling effects of measles, mumps, and rubella – diseases which can be fatal, or which can leave a child brain damaged and needing lifelong care. The effects can still be seen today, with many parents perpetuating the myth that the MMR will give your child autism. Unvaccinated children are contracting measles and they are infecting other unvaccinated children. In many countries, we are now seeing a rise in the number of outbreaks of measles, and deaths relating to those infections. The numbers are continuing to rise, whereas before the media circus relating to the MMR happened, numbers were at an all time low.
Now Wakefield is in the docks, and is being made to face the music for shoddy research, flouting the rules, and being irrespnsible with the lives of other people. But what of the journalists? What of those writers who read only the abstract of his paper, or worse, who read only the summary of his paper in other publications? What of the newspapaers who sold publications by splashing dangerous headlines about autism?
The sad fact is that the newspapaers, the journalists, they won’t be in the docks for their irresponsible reporting. Not many people outside of the medical and scientific worlds read journals like The Lancet, so had they been more responsible, it’s possible that the scare may not have spread so widely.
Wakefield will take a fall, and the newspapers that helped to bouy him up will now chronicle his demise, while they wait for another paper to tell them that cherries give you cancer, and three green tea enemas can cure it.
It’s easy to paint Wakefield as a scapegoat – after all, it was his paper that started it all. But he’s not alone in the blame. Sadly, there’s no way to punish those irresponsible journalists. The PCC is toothless, and has so many restrictions about taking a case that it’s barely worth the time at all. Legal action costs money, and it would be to difficult to prove damage as a result of any one article.
The lesson here is that same old tune you’ve been hearing your whole life – you can’t believe everything you read. As our information networks reach further around the globe, their scope is narrowed. One paper publishes an article, ten more simply rearrange that article and publish it as their own, and before you know it, there’s an MMR scandal all over again.The only thing that can be done is to keep checking sources, to keep checking facts, and to take everything that’s written with a pinch of salt until it’s verified.
The bottom line is this – it is safe to vaccinate your kids. It is irresponsible and dangerous not to. Read every newspaper with both eyes open.