Health: What does it take to scare people?
Jeremy Laurance is a writer on health issues. He is former health editor of The Independent and the i and has covered the specialism for more than 20 years. He thinks the harm medicine does is under-appreciated, the harm it prevents over-rated, and that cycling works better than most drugs. He was named Specialist Journalist of the Year in the 2011 British Press Awards.
Thursday 03 June 1999
Most papers carried reports of "new" research by a team at the Royal Free Hospital in London suggesting a link between measles infection in childhood and the later development of bowel disease. Although the research did not include a study of the effects of MMR vaccine, many papers expressly made the link in headlines that read "New fears of MMR vaccine link to bowel disease."
There were two surprising aspects to these reports. The first was that the research was old - it appeared in the April issue of the US journal Gastroenterology. It was not even new to the lay press. A report of the research appeared in the Daily Mail on 20 April, but even the Mail chose yesterday to repeat its own story six weeks after the first version appeared.
So what accounts for the enthusiasm with which it was picked up? For that we must look to perceptions of the Government's reliability on matters of public health. Ministers are currently embroiled in a royal row over the safety of GM foods, fuelled in part by the continuing crisis over BSE and CJD. Vaccination has been energetically promoted as a key component of public health, but there are - very small - risks attached. (That is why parents are advised not to take their children for vaccination if they have a fever or a history of seizures.) It is into those fears that yesterday's story played.
The Royal Free research is itself vulnerable to challenge. It was based on 7,000 children born in 1970, and suggested that those who caught measles and mumps infections close together were at higher risk of developing Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis in adulthood.
However, the findings depended on parents remembering when their children had fallen ill, up to nine years after the event, and could not show whether the measles preceded mumps or vice versa.
More importantly, it made no link with MMR vaccination - which was not introduced in the UK until 1988 - although one member of the research team, Dr Andrew Wakefield, has suggested in the past that the vaccine may be suspect.
Yesterday, a wary Dr Scott Montgomery, chief author of the latest study, fended off suggestions that his study had any implications for vaccination policy in the UK. "To answer that question would require further research," he said. Since bowel disease tends not to develop until adulthood, we are not going to get a quick answer.
Measles causes fever and, in rare cases, seizures and even brain damage. Already parents are refusing to let their children have the MMR vaccine - coverage rates have dropped from 93 to 87 per cent since 1995. In doing so they are exchanging a theoretical and unproven risk of bowel disease for a certain and proven risk of brain damage.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Hair loss explained: How and why men go bald
- 2 Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe the Stark may have a twin sister
- 3 Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
- 4 A pint of water every day is the key to losing weight, scientists say
- 5 Russia 'accidentally reveals' number of its soldiers killed in eastern Ukraine
Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe the Stark may have a twin sister
Artist takes LSD, draws herself over different stages of the 9-hour trip to show its effects
Suicide Squad's Margot Robbie: Jared Leto's now more petrifying when out of his Joker make-up
Novel Scarlett Johansson tried to ban, Grégoire Delacourt’s The First Thing You See, to be published in UK
The Girl in the Spider's Web, David Lagercrantz, review: Stieg Larsson's heroes return in a thrilling new intrigue
Dresden riots: Protesters in Germany attack refugee buses shouting 'foreigners out'
France train shooting: US soldiers speak of the moment they stopped gunman and 'beat him until he was unconscious'
Labour leadership: Jeremy Corbyn accused of 'deluding' young supporters with 'claptrap'
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith calls for urgent ESA overhaul as part of drive to cut down welfare costs