Measles outbreak: Andrew Wakefield didn’t cause the MMR panic without the help of journalists

Not every feature must be countered by a follow-up in which an opposing view is set out

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The Independent Online

Since Andrew Wakefield spread alarm with his ultimately discredited work linking the MMR vaccine to autism, the issue of mass immunisation has been extremely vexed.

The return of measles to the United States and outbreaks here are testament to the degree of hesitancy which exists.  As for the annual flu vaccine, scepticism is almost de rigueur.

A recent Independent feature examined the measles re-emergence, detailing the impact of the virus and the dangers posed by cracks in herd immunity. It referred disapprovingly to Wakefield’s work and to those who refuse the MMR vaccine for their children.

Two readers complained that it was misleading because it failed to explain that those who opposed immunisation programmes (including measles) did  so because they believed the evidence proved the potential for vaccines  to cause harm. They argued that having set out the argument in  favour of immunisation,  it was incumbent on The Independent to present the contrary view.

In fact, there was a blunder in our piece: a missing label resulted in a graph giving the erroneous impression that measles is as prevalent in America now as it was in the 1920s. We published a correction.

However, the wider concerns showed a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the feature, which was an examination of why measles has re-emerged and why that was a source of anxiety. It was not a review of studies into vaccine risk.

As to whether every feature must be countered by a follow-up in which an opposing view is set out, that is nonsense.

There is also an over-arching point here, which is that journalists should have a responsibility to public health and safety. The notion that the evidence against the current measles immunisation programme has the same degree of validity as that which backs it is baloney. All vaccines (like all drugs) carry a degree of risk, but the dangers of undermining widespread immunity are far worse. The near full weight of the medical profession supports vaccine programmes on the basis of myriad studies and the need to protect communities. 

Of course, journalists should hold the majority view to account, whether that be in relation to medicine or any other topic. But it is just as incumbent on the media to scrutinise the claims of an individual who challenges to the mainstream and who, if given a platform without proper justification, can spread fear. Thank goodness Andrew Wakefield’s research was never given front-page credibility. Ah.

The house where Emwazi once lived
Reporters outside a home in London where Mohammed Emwazi is believed to have lived

The unmasking of “Jihadi John” as Mohammed Emwazi was last week’s major talking point. Background information seemed relatively scant.

One detail which became quickly known was Emwazi’s former address in west London, which became the focus of attention for TV crews, reporters and photographers. Pictures of the house appeared in several media outlets.

This was potentially problematic, bearing in mind the possible risk to those now living there if the property was identified. But equally, if we could be confident that a photograph would not give away the location, was there any virtue in showing some red bricks behind which a younger version of Emwazi had once resided?

Views in the newsroom diverged, although there was common ground that the sheer number of journalists at the property was notable. That, in the end, became the subject of our chosen image.