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Current Affairs Science

No Accounting For Accountability

Not so long ago, there was a time when medical experts thought that they were close to eliminating measles permanently. Now, the World Health Organisation has had to push that target date back to 2015, at the earliest. Many people, particularly those of a more skeptical nature, will attribute this to the infamous Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who was responsible for the publishing of a paper which irresponsibly linked the MMR vaccine to Autism (a link which has been subsequently disproved, and a paper which has been so thoroughly debunked that Wakefield has been struck off the medical register in the UK). However, Andrew Wakefield is not the only person responsible for the spread of these baseless lies. He may have originally authored and published the paper, but what of those who are responsible for ensuring that its contents spread far and wide?

Well, now they’re publishing articles warning us of the dangers of measles, a disease that was once close to complete eradication, and reminding us, in the smallest of bullet points, that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and Autism. One such article, published just the other day, is by the BBC – Measles outbreak warning as cases rise in Europe and UK. In this article, we’re told about the epidemic of measles in France, and warned that, particularly for families travelling with young children, the risk is high. They also helpfully remind us that the only way to definitely prevent measles is to receive the vaccine. The fact that there is no link to Autism is mentioned as a small bullet point under a column entitled “Measles Facts”. The presence of such a bullet point is extremely annoying, for two main reasons; firstly, the continued linking of the terms measles, MMR, and Autism only serves to reinforce the notion that there ever was a legitimate link between those terms, and secondly, and most importnatly, the only reason that such a bullet point is needed is because of the irresponsible and lazy reporting by organisations such as the BBC in the first place.

You need only look in the archives of the BBC to find numerous articles about the MMR vaccine and its purported link with Autism. In 2004, they invited readers to comment on the idea that the vaccine had been declared “safe”, and while they make sure to tell us that the comments shown reflect the balance of opinion they have received, the inclusion of the word safe in inverted commas belies their alleged balanced view. Indeed, the BBC, like most other news sources at the time, reported extensively on the “discovery” that the vaccine was linked to Autism, and was neither cautious nor balanced in the headlines they published – “Child Vaccine Linked To Autism”.

The finger has been pointed at Wakefield, but the journalists, news channels, newspapers, and other pundits shouldn’t also escape blame. The media furore was what caused the spread of the story, about a paper which otherwise would likely not have been read by many, and this furore was caused by the media themselves. It is very easy for the BBC to report on the GMCs rulings about Wakefield, and to casually remind us all that the link has not been proved, but while the Lancet has issued a retraction, and admitted that the paper should never have been published, no news organisation has apologised for the part that they played in it, or issued a retraction for the irresponsible scaremongering that they engaged in. Every time an article like this is published, we are reminded of two things; one, irresponsible research and publication is damaging, and two, when it comes to reporting, there is simply no accounting for accountability.

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Science

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.