Nappy valley: the affluent parents who prefer childhood illness to a jab

The organic apples at Kelly's store come in brown paper bags printed with the slogan "Food You Can Trust." And trust is the issue in the place they call Nappy Valley, the affluent area around Wandsworth Common, south-west London, where you cannot walk the street without bumping into a buggy, usually pushed by a nanny.

Parents who live here don't trust farmers not to poison their children with pesticides, so they go organic. They don't trust the state to educate their little ones properly, so they go private. Now trust and choice are in danger of becoming a matter of life and death around here, because measles has arrived on the doorstep of this community at a time when more and more of its parents refuse to immunise their children.

They don't trust the word of politicians on MMR vaccine any more than they did on BSE, so they go solo and pay for single jabs from private clinics. Or they did, until the latest outbreak caused a rush and supplies ran out. Others have chosen not to give their child any protection at all.

"I will not let Giles be injected with diseases," insists Sara, a new mum drinking coffee in the Boiled Egg and Soldiers on the Northcote Road. This is the smartest local meeting place for parents and carers, a bright yellow-and-blue café with free broadsheets to browse and jazz on the stereo. There are also stray baked beans and flecks of scrambled egg on the table, the chair, and the floor, as a toddler demolishes breakfast.

Sara used to work in advertising until she gave up to have the baby; her partner is a banker. They live in three-bedroom house worth £600,000, but are thinking about moving out to the countryside when little Giles gets older.

"He is going to be part of a pure generation who never had any jabs at all because their mummies and daddies didn't believe the hype," says Sara, who has no intention of allowing her three-month-old son to be immunised against measles, mumps, or rubella, singly or all at once.

"What's the problem with measles anyway?" she says. "You have spots, you get better. No big deal."

Her attitude causes Dr David Elliman to shake his head, as well it might, because it is his job to persuade the wealthy dissidents of Nappy Valley to have their jabs.

Dr Elliman runs the immunisation programmes for Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, where only 74 per cent of children have been vaccinated. "We have certainly not done as well as we would have hoped," he admits. In deprived areas parents are more concerned about feeding their children than vaccinating them. Meanwhile the middle-classes have the time to ask awkward questions.

Dr Elliman has been inundated with calls from parents since the outbreak in nearby Streatham. He speaks softly but calmly; he is exactly the sort of man who might calm their fears. "That is how we'll recover confidence," he says. "Parents talking to health professionals they know and trust. It's hard to see what else can be done."

Dr Elliman, 51, would recommend MMR for his grandchildren, if he had any. The trouble is, he says, that parents have forgotten how serious measles can be. In 1967 there were 99 deaths. Then vaccinations were introduced. The last death directly caused by measles in Britain was eight years ago.

"This is what happened with whooping cough: a vaccine comes in, the disease goes away. Then people forget how bad it was and concentrate on the alleged side-effects of the vaccine. The immunisation rate goes down, the disease comes back. It's a hard way to learn a lesson."

There is no way the crisis-ridden health service can sit every concerned parent down for a long private chat, but the Prime Minister knew what he was doing when he put the case for MMR on the Downing Street website on Friday. The internet is where the militant mothers of Nappy Valley get their facts before bringing them for discussion at the Boiled Egg and Soldiers.

"I have taken a great deal of time and trouble to research this thoroughly," says Diana, who is unusual among her fellow mothers in that she works full time. Like Sara she asked for her name to be changed. "I've heard doctors are striking off patients who won't let their children have MMR."

The homeopath who cured her son of asthma suggested it might have been linked to his MMR jab, so when Savannah was born seven years ago Diana refused it. Health visitors and other parents accused her of being selfish and relying on everybody else to get their children done.

"I don't blame parents for saying they don't know what to do," she says. "There are so many reports and statistics but, even then it's hard to over-ride your gut instinct that something is not right for your child."

Now, to her own great surprise, Diana has been converted by what she found on the net. "I'm beginning to wonder if Savannah shouldn't have the jab. Maybe I've been a bit cavalier. The trouble is it's so hard to find a voice you can trust."