Jeremy Laurance: A gamble that risks turning a maverick into a martyr

Share

The General Medical Council's decision to pursue Andrew Wakefield is a huge gamble. The scare over MMR vaccine that began in 1998 has seen hundreds of thousands of parents reject one of the most basic safeguards for children.

In the eight years since, experience has shown that any publicity about MMR, even that which has undermined the credibility of the author of the scare, has damaged confidence in the the combined vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella and led to a further fall in immunisation rates. Bringing a disciplinary case against Dr Wakefield risks re-enforcing the view that there is a conspiracy by the Government and medical establishment to promote MMR. If the GMC wins, it could turn Dr Wakefield into a martyr. If it loses, it may reignite debate about the safety of the vaccine.

The case has been through the GMC's screening procedure and, despite initial scepticism as to whether it could be made to stick, lawyers on both sides now accept that he will be charged with serious professional misconduct.

His defenders say that his research may be open to criticism, like any research, but academic disagreement does not add up to serious professional misconduct. Even his failure to disclose a conflict of interest - that he was being paid by the Legal Aid Board - has been described by at least one senior GMC member as "foolish" but not unprecedented and not sufficient to justify charges by the GMC.

The question now is what effect a public hearing before the GMC will have on MMR vaccination rates. In the tentative view of the Health Protection Agency, public confidence in the vaccine is just beginning to return and immunisation rates are on the rise. It would be tragic if that were to be damaged.

The really surprising feature of the MMR scare has been not how it started but how it has been sustained for so long in the face of overwhelming evidence that the vaccine is safe.

The safety record of the combined triple vaccine is vastly superior to that for the single vaccines. Yet many parents have opted for single vaccines in preference to the triple MMR in the belief that they are protecting their children from a greater harm.

Why have intelligent people chosen to reject mainstream science and listen to far less authoritative sources? Unlike most scientific controversies which flare up and die away, this one has simmered on for eight years. It has been sustained by a mix of public anxiety, public mistrust of government assurances on health following the BSE debacle and sympathy for a lone doctor.

Growing environmental concerns about pollution, additives in the diet and genetically modified crops have conspired to undermine faith in science. Tony Blair's refusal to say whether his son Leo had received the MMR vaccine heightened anxiety.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, which published the offending paper, has said the controversy over MMR revealed a society "unable to come to terms with dissent" and called it "a crisis of rationality." Whatever the outcome of the GMC case, rebuilding public confidence in science must be a priority in an age facing unquantifiable threats as diverse as those from global warming and avian flu.

But in the field of children's health, a constant source of anxiety for parents, nothing can compete with the power of anecdote. So it is worth recording that Professor John Walker-Smith, the distinguished paediatric gastroenterologist who was the senior author on Dr Wakefield's 1998 Lancet paper, disclosed in 2002 that he continued to support MMR - as have all the Royal Free paediatricians from the beginning - and that three of his own grandsons had had the triple MMR vaccination.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Senior Research Fellow in Gender, Food and Resilient Communities

£47,334 - £59,058 per annum: Coventry University: The Centre for Agroecology, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker