Health Check: Danger! Phobia alert

ALLOW ME to introduce you to a new syndrome. It is called "riskfactorphobia" and it is said by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford, which apparently coined the term, to be a side-effect of health scares.

Riskfactorphobia is sweeping the population, according to the SIRC, which monitors social and cultural trends. A significant proportion of people have become hypersensitive to health scares and warnings and increasingly anxious about the risk factors in their diet, lifestyle and environment, they say.

I couldn't agree more. The things people worry about are, truly, worrying. For some people it must take courage to open the fridge. Perils lurk on every shelf. If the listeria in the cheese doesn't get them, or the 17 kinds of pesticide on the lettuce, the salmonella in the chicken surely will.

But I part company with SIRC when it cites the panic over measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine as the latest example of "grossly irresponsible scaremongering". In its latest bulletin, Kate Fox, the director, says: "There was never a shred of valid scientific evidence for health risks from MMR - the Medical Research Council quite clearly stated that there was no evidence to indicate any link between MMR and either Crohn's disease or autism - but the MMR scare has now put the health of millions of children in serious danger."

Excuse me? Never a shred of scientific evidence? I have an idea the editors of The Lancet, which published the two research papers from the team at the Royal Free Hospital in north London that triggered the scare, might have a thing or two to say about that.

The papers were read by other experts in the field - peer-reviewed, in the jargon - and considered to meet the standard required for publication. It is true that subsequent studies have found no evidence of the link with Crohn's disease and autism, no research team anywhere in the world has been able to replicate the Royal Free's findings, and several dozen scientists have now backed the safety of MMR vaccine. But one can knock down a hypothesis only if it has first been erected.

The right to conduct, and publish, unwelcome research must be sacrosanct. Imagine if The Lancet had declined to publish the paper, the researchers had continued to examine the link, and subsequent studies had confirmed its findings. Children would have continued to receive MMR vaccine in ignorance of its dangers, and the damage to public trust in science, and to The Lancet's credibility, would have been immense.

The MMR scare, which public health experts fear could lead to a measles epidemic in 2001 if vaccination rates continue to fall, was triggered not by the Royal Free research, but by the scientists who conducted it and who, unwisely, went beyond the research findings at a press conference, to implicate the vaccine. It has been sustained by a public grown used to a world in which measles, mumps and rubella have become rare illnesses and so sees no need to expose its children to even the one-in-a-million risk of a serious reaction to the vaccine.

All this could change - and that is the worry.