Media accused of stirring up fears over MMR

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The public has been "duped" by biased media reporting into thinking that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine carries risks when the overwhelming scientific consensus is that it is safe, a report says today.

The public has been "duped" by biased media reporting into thinking that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine carries risks when the overwhelming scientific consensus is that it is safe, a report says today.

Newspaper, radio and television reports have whipped up the controversy by giving excessive exposure to minority dissenting voices, the report by the Economic and Social Research Council reveals. Over half (53 per cent) of those questioned in a survey wrongly believed that scientists were split down the middle over the safety of MMR, when in fact almost all experts reject the claim of a link between the vaccine and autism. But because both sides of the debate received equal media coverage people believed there must be equal evidence for each.

Researchers at Cardiff University School of Journalism, led by Professor Ian Hargreaves, a former editor of The Independent, analysed 561 newspaper, radio and TV stories published or broadcast between January and September 2002. More than half were concentrated in one month between 28 January and 28 February 2002, described by scientists as a "feeding frenzy." The researchers also commissioned two national surveys of more than 1,000 people.

More than two thirds of the media reports focused on the possible link between MMR and autism but only half the television reports and less than a third of the broadsheet newspaper reports balanced this claim with a reference to the bulk of evidence showing the vaccine was safe.

The controversy began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield, then a specialist in gastro-enterology at the Royal Free Hospital in London, published a paper in The Lancet suggesting a possible link between the measles virus, a new form of bowel disease and autism which raised questions about the safety of the MMR vaccine. Dr Wakefield suggested giving children separate single vaccines would be safer.

Unlike most scientific controversies, which flare up and die away, this one has simmered on for the past six years. It has been sustained by a mix of public emotions including anxiety about environmental threats (pollution, GM foods, pesticides), sympathy for a lone doctor ranged against the medical establishment and public mistrust of the Government after the debacle over BSE.

Professor Justin Lewis, one of the authors of the study, said: "While Wakefield's claims are of legitimate public interest, our report shows that research questioning the safety of something that is widely used should be approached with caution, both by scientists and by journalists. This is especially the case where any decline in confidence can have serious consequences for public health."

A prominent theme of the coverage was the proposal to give parents the choice of three separate jabs, even though there was no research to show that this was a safer option. The survey of public opinion found that 31 per cent of people supported single vaccines with only 47 per cent preferring the combined MMR jab. "There is no doubt that the long-term public health consequences of a fall in vaccination levels are profound," the report concluded.

The research also revealed public disquiet over the way journalists deal with minority voices within science. Almost half of those questioned said that on matters of public health, journalists should wait for corroboration before reporting alarming research.

Comments