Jeremy Laurance: Don't give in to this misguided crusade by middle-class parents

'It's astonishing how many parents weighing the MMR evidence haven't done the same for single vaccines'

Share

What is it about MMR? Another survey, this time by the Today programme on Radio 4, has once again shown widespread public alarm about the triple vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (german measles). Two-thirds of those polled, according to the BBC, think that parents should have the choice of three single vaccines for their children, if that is what they want.

Extraordinary, is it not, that Britain's middle classes have whipped themselves into such a frenzy over MMR? Given all the threats to life and limb to which children are exposed – tobacco and roads are the two that top my list – it is remarkable that parents are prepared to devote so much time to minimising what is already an infinitesimally small risk from a single childhood vaccination. If they devoted half as much energy to stopping smoking and slowing traffic, think how much genuinely safer for children this country would be.

But I digress. For the real problem here is that the arguments against MMR are completely wrongheaded and, frankly, daft. Their effect is to increase the risk, both to the individual child and to the wider community. It is not too strong to say that the continued campaign against MMR threatens a public health disaster.

Let us take the issue of choice first, for this is what most exercises parents involved in this debate. Whatever the facts, it is said, it must be just that parents have the right to give their children them singly, even if ultimately that option is proved to be less safe. Parental choice is sacrosanct.

It is this, superficially laudable, sentiment which presumably explains the Today poll finding. But the argument is flawed. It is astonishing how many intelligent parents, who have spent hours carefully weighing the evidence for and against MMR, have neglected to do the same for the single vaccines that they favour.

They blithely assume that the single vaccines are the same as the component parts of the triple MMR vaccine, and that by having them singly they can avoid the theoretical "shock" (for which there is no evidence) all three at once delivers to a child's developing immune system.

Unfortunately, the single vaccines are not the same. No safety review has ever been conducted of the single measles vaccine, which is not licensed in the UK. Many parents who have paid for the single mumps vaccine privately will have received the Urabe or Rubini strains imported from the continent. The Urabe strain, which was included in the early version of the MMR vaccine, was withdrawn after it was linked with cases of aseptic meningitis. It was replaced, as a constituent of MMR, by the Jeryl Lynn strain in 1992. The Rubini strain has not been licensed in the UK since it's effective in only 12 per cent of children.

Even if the single vaccines were equivalent, which they are not, giving three at intervals is inherently less safe than giving one. During the intervals between the separate vaccines, the child remains exposed to the risk of catching the illnesses against which it has not yet been vaccinated. Furthermore, some parents will inevitably fail to return for the second and third jabs, reducing the level of cover in the community. In Japan, the only country where single vaccines are recommended, regular measles outbreaks have occurred since the early 1990s, and between 1992 and 1997 there were 79 deaths.

MMR is much more widely used than the single vaccines and has consequently been more intensively studied. At least 500 million doses have been given worldwide, and continuous post-marketing surveillance has not revealed any significant risk. Four specific studies set up to examine the claims of a link with autism and bowel disease have failed to confirm them. Although cases of autism have risen dramatically in the last decade this is thought to be largely, if not wholly, because it is better detected.

This is still not enough to satisfy many parents. They are alarmed by the continuing publicity around MMR and they insist they must have the right to choose, even if that means making the wrong choice.

But this is a libertarian step too far and one that threatens the public good. We already accept restrictions on our right to choose, in the interests of protecting both personal and public safety. The clearest example is the ban on drink-driving. We accept it because we know the terrible consequences of the alternative – shattered bones and smashed lives. Nor is this only about the protection of others. Seatbelts and motorcycle helmets are also compulsory – the state's attempt to protect us from ourselves.

A large part of the reason why the campaign against MMR has been able to gain momentum is that there is no equivalent of the roadside carnage that reminds us regularly of the danger of drink-driving. It is precisely because of the success of MMR that we no longer see in Britain the consequences of the diseases against which it protects.

Yet measles is a killer. Though most adults over 40 will remember it as a mild fever accompanied by a rash, it can lead to serious complications including encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and death. Mumps can cause sterility, and rubella can result in birth defects if passed on to pregnant women. There have been no measles deaths in the UK since 1990, but in 1988, the year MMR was introduced, there were 76,000 casesand 16 deaths.

There is one other argument that the anti-MMR lobby trots out. It is that confidence in MMR – thanks largely to their efforts – is falling. It must be better to allow parents single vaccines than to risk children having none.

It is true that the current position is bad, but it is not yet a disaster. Nationally, vaccination rates have dropped from 93 per cent to 88 per cent (and lower in some areas). During the whooping cough vaccine scare of the 1970s, vaccination rates fell below 50 per cent (and it was followed by a series of epidemics). We are teetering on the edge of the abyss – but it is not yet time to jump into it. Unless vaccination rates fall dramatically, the Government must hold firm and work to rebuild confidence in MMR.

The worst feature of this saga is what it tells us about the nation's loss of confidence in science. The best scientific research shows that MMR is safe. That is what must govern Britain's policy. If ministers yield to the mob, even one composed of the chattering classes, it will be a black day for science, for health and for children.

j.laurance@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness