Wednesday, February 3, 2010

MMR & autism - hogwash

Living in the UK in the late 90s (as I did) it was hard to avoid the MMR scandal. I won't go into the details here. This link will tell you what you need to know and concentrates on the part played by the press in the whole palaver. Suffice to say, they did not cover themselves in glory and undoubtedly influenced a large number of parents not to use the triple jab thereby endangering the children of those parents who immunised their kids but for some reason the jab didn't work.

Now that the dust is settling, that the GMC verdict is in and that the Lancet paper retracted, some reflection is appropriate.

Despite the Bad Science link above suggesting that the autism / MMR link is a UK phenomenon, in my young student cohort one person put their hand up in a tutorial to remark on the link when MMR was mentioned. So, the damage has spread globally.

The other entity that comes out of this mess poorly is the magazine Private Eye. Although it is typical for the magazine to take an automatically contrarian view, their lack of understanding of the data disproving the autism link went on for far too long. Even today, there seems to be a reluctance to accept that they were duped by the lobbyists on this one. I sent them a letter post GMC to see if they'd publicise the safety of MMR as thoroughly as they did the imagined dangers, but normally when the letter is accepted you get a "I've passed this on to the editor"... nothing this time. And there's nothing on their website at the moment when you search for 'MMR'.

Oh God, and I forgot about their special report in 2002. 2002! Geez. The BMJ produced an interesting review here.

The problem comes down to the media's lack of understanding of science. Being largely art grads, this is not surprising. Other skills, such as understanding how the biases of sources can bias a piece of work, you would have thought to have been in an experienced journo's tool kit... but in this case the author of the Private Eye report, Heather Mills, even goes so far as to thank these sources on the back cover of the report..!

Following this debacle, a demonstration of little self-awareness of one's limitations amongst the fourth estate is warranted.

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