Jeremy Laurance: Is this really the best way to restore confidence in the MMR vaccine?

Medical Life

Professor David Salisbury, as head of immunisation at the Department of Health, has one of the most difficult tasks in medicine: restoring confidence in the MMR vaccine. Why, then, is he imperilling the enterprise by threatening legal action against a website that has published a few critical remarks about him?

On 26 February, solicitors for Salisbury |wrote to The One Click Group, an anti-vaccine campaigning organisation, demanding the withdrawal of two articles on its website. One |is a letter of complaint, originally sent to the General Medical Council but thrown out. The other is an article that suggests that Salisbury’s refusal to contemplate the harm caused by vaccination has parallels with Basil Fawlty’s doomed struggle to avoid mentioning the war in front of his German guests. “Our client is an extremely experienced doctor… To compare him to a comedy character and object of ridicule in this manner is clearly defamatory,” says the letter.

The website NHS Blog Doctor, and its correspondent, the menacingly styled John Crippen, drew my attention to this exchange. I agree with his verdict on Salisbury’s move: this is madness.

Dr Crippen throws light on a great mystery of the MMR scare – how it has been sustained for more than a decade, when most health scares subside after a week. As a GP, he tries to persuade mothers to have their babies immunised. The reaction he often gets is this: “We never hear the other side of the story. If any doctor tries to complain, the Government silences them. Look what happened to Dr Wakefield.”

For the head of a government department |to use the law to crack down on a little-known website confirms the truth of this. A short, sharp letter in response would have been enough. Instead, he’s stoked the flames. The Department of Health declined to comment on behalf of Professor Salisbury.

I fear this episode is symptomatic of a wider problem. The fault, if Salisbury has one, is not in what he says but how he says it. The tone in |a recent Radio 4 ‘Today’ interview, as measles cases hit a new high, was hectoring, with a note of irritation. “I think it’s irrational [refusing the vaccine]. I think it’s putting children’s lives at risk. I can see no shred of benefit,” he said. Is he becoming exasperated? That would not be surprising, but this is not the way to reassure parents anxious about their children’s safety