Don't play political games with MMR

'I don't care what Tony Blair has decided to do with Leo - do you really think he has inside knowledge we don't have?'
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The Independent Online

The front page of The Sun yesterday announced a leak from Downing Street. "Blair is wobbling: Measles fear sparks review." If true, this would be rather sensible on Mr Blair's part. As take-up of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in parts of London is said to be dropping to as low as 75 per cent; as outbreaks of measles are now being reported as far apart as Clapham and Gateshead – wouldn't it be only rational for members of the Government to sit down and ask themselves whether their vaccination policy is working?

But note The Sun's wording. "Blair is wobbling." Oh, yes. And wobbling is a sign of weakness. And the Government must never, ever be weak. So as soon as The Sun rose with its story, Downing Street attempted to eclipse it with a denial. The leak was "completely untrue". Tony Blair was most certainly not going to look at the possibility of providing a choice between the all-in-one vaccine and three single jabs. No, not even though 85 per cent of parents, in a recent poll, said they thought the choice should be offered.

Immediately the opposition, sensing weakness, moved in to attack. "The Government's immunisation policy is a disaster," the shadow Health Secretary said. And the interviews on Radio 4's Today programme yesterday morning continued the blistering confrontation, with more talk of wobbles and U-turns. The MMR vaccine had become a political football to be tossed from Liam Fox to Yvette Cooper, with John Humphrys as a grumpy referee.

But is this really the best way to conduct a debate about children's health? A couple of months ago, when I first wrote about the fears that were building up about the vaccine, I noted that the doctors who are exploring possible links between the vaccine and autism admit that they haven't proved anything yet. From Andrew Wakefield, the gastroenterologist who started the whole kerfuffle, to John O'Leary, the pathologist whose new research on the presence of the measles virus in the guts of autistic children was published yesterday, to Walter Spitzer, the acclaimed epidemiologist – all are still asking questions, not making statements. Even Andrew Wakefield says clearly: "We have not proved a link." But they are arguing that more studies should be carried out.

Given the reasonable tone emanating from such doctors, the political rhetoric sounds ever more blinkered. Yesterday morning the Public Health Minister, Yvette Cooper, repeated over and over again that there is no proof that the MMR vaccine is at all unsafe. The Government has been saying the same thing for months. But surely at some point they must realise that this does not answer the dissidents' argument that more research still needs to be done.

And while Conservative and Labour politicians happily debate the MMR issue back and forth on television and radio, we have to ask: who are really bearing the brunt of this particular political spat?

My daughter is now nearly 14 months old. Her birthday was marked, as all first birthdays now are, by the first appearance of that little blue slip asking us to make an appointment for the MMR vaccine. A reminder followed a month later. Any day now, I or my partner must trudge off to the doctor to have the needle pushed into her arm. Perhaps I would have followed the MMR debate anyway, but this timing means that I am constantly drawn, with horrified sympathy, to those tales of the parents whose perfect children, whose talking, laughing, kissing, enchanting children, retreated into a black pit around this age. And who now blame the MMR vaccine.

I know that my perfect, laughing, enchanting daughter is highly unlikely to be damaged by any vaccination. I know that there is no medical evidence to say the MMR jab is any danger to her health. But as long as fears continue to be voiced, I would like to see this debate continued on rational rather than rhetorical grounds.

Concerns are being raised by thousands of parents who have watched and suffered over the pattern of their children's development more closely than any doctor could, and I would like to hear politicians engaging with those concerns rather than dismissing them out of hand. Concerns are also being raised by more than one respected scientific researcher, and I would like to know that funds are being made available to those researchers to lay those concerns to rest.

When we hear that Walter Spitzer, a doctor who has been described as the "dean" of epidemiology, has said, "There has not been a single properly designed, properly executed, properly analysed epidemiological study published since this controversy became visible," we have to ask – why not? When we hear that John O'Leary, a molecular pathologist with "an international reputation", said only yesterday that his new study "raises many questions about whether measles virus has a role in bowel inflammation and developmental disorder", we have to wonder when we will get answers to those questions.

But finding answers doesn't seem to be the priority of this government. Instead of engaging with the dissent, their spokespeople blame "media hysteria" for stoking a "panic", and they shut off perfectly rational questions from interviewers because they might sow "doubt" and "fear". The best response they have come up with so far is a £3m advertising campaign that compares parents who won't immunise their children with parents who would leave their baby in front of a rampaging tiger! Stop patronising us, Mr Blair.

The Prime Minister should give an interview where he admits that the Government is not always omniscient. To be honest, I don't really care what he has decided to do with Leo – do you really think he has inside knowledge that we don't have? No, what I care about is whether he is going to take steps to increase the knowledge available to every parent. He should announce increased funding for epidemiological and biological studies to finally lay to rest the question of whether there is any correlation between rises in autism and MMR take-up, or any connection between the measles virus found in the gut of affected children and the vaccine.

The Government could also offer single vaccines to those who want it, in the expectation that the public will be grown up enough not to assume that such a move means that MMR is necessarily dangerous, but simply that they now have been entrusted with a choice that they are able to make for themselves. As it is, middle-class parents are buying that choice in private clinics, while parents on low incomes who might like to do the same are forced to sweat out their fears.

Unfortunately, this government believes that the best way to meet people's fears is not by engaging with them, but by trying to shut down the debate. But as long as people feel patronised, they will respond with doubt. The only way out of the situation is for Mr Blair to respect the public and to engage on an equal level with all parents. A review of policy would not be a sign of weakness or a U-turn – it would be a sign of progress and confidence.