Christine Jardine: Measles panic could so easily have been avoided

More than 700 children have now been affected. Picture: PA
More than 700 children have now been affected. Picture: PA
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FOR me, there is a horrible sense of inevitability about the measles epidemic sweeping through Wales.

I am of the generation who, as new mothers, were faced with the MMR vaccine dilemma, which has led us to this point.

More than 700 children have now been affected and, with schools returning this week, the authorities are warning that it could get much worse. We can only hope that the consequences are not fatal.

In Scotland, we must not be complacent and think that it could not happen here: it quite easily could. And all because of one piece of research that led to a scare, undermined public confidence over the safety of the vaccine, and prompted the decision by many parents to reject wider medical reassurances over MMR – mumps, measles and rubella – inoculations.

My daughter was a baby and due to have the first of her MMR injections when Dr Andrew Wakefield claimed that his research showed there could be a link between the vaccine and Autism or bowel disease. He was a lone voice opposing the general view that the inoculations were safe. His research was based on only 12 cases. With hindsight, neither of those facts seemed clear. The publication of his work was seized on by the media and became an international story.

I clearly remember the sense of desperately needing to know more. Any new parent will recognise the near panic that overcomes you on being confronted with a decision that has any kind of health implications for your child. And with this decision, the potential consequences of getting it wrong seemed huge –either way.

But, as a journalist, I was also acutely aware of the media coverage that had preceded the introduction of the vaccine in 1988. We were repeatedly told by the medical professionals that, for children, measles can prove fatal if it leads to meningitis or encephalitis. For pregnant mothers, contact with German measles (rubella) can be disastrous for their unborn babies. Mumps can leave adult men infertile.

When the controversy over the vaccine emerged, I turned to my mother for advice about the MMR jab. She had no doubts, reminding me of how ill I had been with measles – so ill that she and my dad had been worried about me. I also spoke to our family GP, who took the time to explain the background and reassure my husband and me over the safety of the vaccine before we went ahead.

But some of my friends had different experiences. One was so concerned by what she had heard and was reading that she investigated individual vaccines for the three illnesses. That seemed to pose different, and just as difficult, questions. Others rejected the idea of the vaccinations altogether. None of those reactions – my own or those of my friends – are surprising given the widespread coverage the research received, despite the continuing insistence by the medical profession that it was wrong.

When I was teaching journalism in the late 1990s and first decade of this century, I used an example from a TV documentary on the MMR controversy to illustrate the pitfalls of using statistics without questioning them. The programme pointed out that before the introduction of the triple vaccine, autism had been quite low on the table of diagnosed childhood conditions. Since the introduction, it had leapt up the table to second place. The numbers and information used were accurate.

What I felt the programme didn’t address, however, was how much of autism’s progress up the table was due to the virtual elimination of measles, mumps and rubella from their previous places near the top. And what about the fact that there had been improvements in the diagnosis of autism? At the time, that argument didn’t gain much traction.

I found myself wondering then, and again now, if too many people were too excited about the possible story to stop and think about the implications of it being wrong? Was the tale of a medical conspiracy to hide the truth about this vaccine so tempting that it drowned out the voices which warned that maybe we were putting children at risk from a dangerous illness, measles, with no good reason?

That baby whose vaccinations I agonised over is now a happy healthy teenager. Although she had to suffer the mild indignity of chicken pox, she has been spared measles and mumps and the disruption to schooling that they bring.

If she is ever an expectant mother, she has also been spared any worry about the danger of coming into contact with rubella and the damage that it could do her unborn child. Most importantly, for the next few weeks we will not have to face the worry that thousands of other parents across the country are living with: has my child been exposed to measles?

It is a fear which persuaded parents of more than 2,500 children to take them to the special MMR inoculation clinics that were set up in Wales this past weekend.

Vaccination programmes are also being set up in Welsh schools this week to target children aged 11 to 18 and reach as many as possible of the estimated 40,000 children who were unprotected when the measles outbreak started.

A further 30,000 children are thought to have had only one of the two recommended vaccinations, giving them 95 per cent protection.

And while what we are seeing now was inevitable once parents’ confidence in the MMR vaccine was undermined to the point that they didn’t take it up, it was also completely unnecessary.

The research which sparked the scare and led to the original downturn in the number of children being inoculated was flawed. The claims it made have now been discredited.

What we are left with is the ultimate expression of what happens when we, the media and society in general, refuse to believe that one lone voice against the rest of the medical profession is not necessarily a disciple of the truth.

They might simply be wrong.