MMR and measles in South Wales: In fear of the unknown, we risked the well-known

Common sense eventually triumphed over MMR jab scaremongering, but it took 15 years, hundreds of new measles cases and countless misinformed headlines

If you’re looking for proof that common sense eventually triumphs over scaremongering, the long queues at clinics across South Wales provide it. Parents waited for hours this weekend to have their children inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella – the MMR vaccine. And they waited because measles, mumps and rubella aren’t a necessary part of childhood, like grazed knees. They are dangerous diseases: measles can cause brain damage, deafness and death.

It is 15 years since Andrew Wakefield published his now-discredited paper in The Lancet suggesting a link between autism and the MMR jab. The subsequent media storm proved that many journalists had little notion of science. Yet vaccination rates collapsed in parts of the country, including South Wales, where a major measles outbreak has now occurred. Health officials are suggesting a link between a local newspaper campaign in the late 1990s and the fall-off in vaccinations which has allowed the current spate to take hold. Wakefield, meanwhile, moved to Texas and was last seen trying to flog a reality TV show about autism.

The autism issue has been fraught with difficulty, precisely because parents of autistic children are having a tough enough time without being dismissed as gullible fools by an impatient scientific community. But plenty of autism campaigners feel equally irate. Ari Ne’eman – the first person with an autism spectrum disorder to sit on the US National Council on Disability – points out that “the idea of the poor, pitiful disabled person that we need to save… belongs on the ash heap of history”.

Undeniably, there are still parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because, although they don’t believe in the benefits of inoculation, they do fear what they perceive to be unknown risks. The trouble is that measles comes with very well-known risks – but they were simply forgotten by too many of us when everyone was vaccinated. Measles seemed to be nothing worse than a mild childhood illness from which everyone recovered in a week. Then, in 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person in Britain in more than a decade to die of the disease.

I spent a while researching the consequences of measles for a novel. I wanted to look at how a character might be scarred – literally and metaphorically – by the choices her parents made, as they tried to do the right thing but were bombarded with conflicting information. And I wanted to consider the impact that her illness would have on her parents: on the guilt and blame which would follow what they eventually felt was the wrong decision.

South Wales surely proves that most of the media has become vastly more responsible when writing about medical issues. Hopefully, the days of scare-tactic headlines are behind us and parents can make an informed choice, rather than a frightened one.