Paul Vallely: Parents' fears over the MMR jab can only be alleviated by better science

'For those parents who have yet to decide, a reiteration of the old position will not do'
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The Independent Online

Being an 18-month old is hard, particularly if you are Leo Blair. The toddler son of the Prime Minister is not yet talking in full sentences – we assume, though Mr Blair's spin doctors have yet to confirm the fact, or drop a hint of it to a "friendly" newspaper – but already his medical history is threatening to achieve iconic status. Leo's Jab looks set to enter the annals of puerile political history beside Jennifer's Ear or poor little Cordelia Gummer's Hamburger.

The Government fears that it is losing the argument over the safety of the triple-jab for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). That, at any rate, is the judgement of the Secretary of State for Health, Alan Milburn, in the wake of last week's intense media campaign to get Tony Blair to reveal whether Leo has had the jab.

So, we are now told, ministers are considering a campaign in the new year to shore up public confidence in the combination vaccine. Some even talk about using "role models" such as Madonna, David Beckham and Elizabeth Hurley to win back the steadily growing number of parents who are refusing to subject their offspring to the triple cocktail.

Liz Hurley? Let's not enter into any discussion as to her suitability for parental emulation. Yet even leaving that aside, Mr Milburn's solution – set out at a private Christmas party last week for staff and journalists – seems a peculiarly myopic one. A public relations-campaign is the last thing anyone needs in a controversy that has already generated far too much heat and not enough light.

Not that Mr Blair's tardy intervention has been particularly helpful. It may be that the Prime Minster was justified in his angry outburst over the weekend in which he complained that some newspapers had "totally distorted" the facts in reporting that his wife's sister, Lyndsey Booth, who campaigns for better treatment for autistic children, had used her family influence to secure a meeting in Downing Street with senior government officials.

Though she took with her Dr Andrew Wakefield – the doctor whose research has discovered the measles virus in the inflamed tissues of the gut of children who have developed autism after receiving the MMR vaccine – discussions were not about the vaccine but about why such children face an 18-month waiting list for investigation.

But Mr Blair went on to say something disingenuous. "The advice to parents to have the MMR jab," he said, "is one of scores of pieces of advice or campaigns the Government supports in matters ranging from under-age sex to teenage alcohol abuse or smoking, to different types of advice on a huge range of activities from breast feeding to safe play. Once we comment on one, it is hard to see how we can justify not commenting on them all."

Really? Surely, public controversy about one element in that broad range of advice creates a particular situation that needs to be addressed. A public comment where there is public anxiety does not constitute a blanket breach of young Leo's privacy, especially when what is at stake is parental behaviour rather than personal details about the child. In refusing to acknowledge that, Mr Blair may have stumbled into his Hamburger Moment.

Both the pro- and anti-lobbies agree that one fact speaks eloquently: take-up of the MMR vaccine has dropped from 92 per cent to below 85 per cent of the population since the question of autism was raised, and is continuing to fall. The question is whether Mr Blair's refusal to say whether Leo had had the MMR – and Labour's insistence that all other ministers should do the same with their children – helped or hindered public confidence. And there can be little doubt that ministers evasion of questions on the issue has only raised public anxiety.

Growing numbers of parents of vaccination-aged children – and I am one of them – have questions about whether the inoculation is linked to late-onset autism. We ask why some children don't just fail to progress after the jab but actually regress, losing skills they had already attained. We want to know why such changes begin within about a month of vaccination – whether vaccination takes place at 12 months, 18 months, 12 years or 18 years.

The response of the medical profession to all such questions is the same. It is just an unhappy coincidence of timing: the MMR is not linked in any way. The trouble is this response is evidently not convincing growing numbers of people. The medical establishment is clearly frustrated by this, for it is hard for its experts to prove a negative, and the overwhelming epidemiological evidence is that the MMR is safe and effective. Doctors point to the 250 million MMR doses which have been safely given in the United States.

The trouble is that, as anti-MMR campaigners point out, the US National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has in the past 10 years paid out over $140m (£97m) to children damaged by the MMR – and that the scheme, which until recently required drug companies to pay into it based on risk, taxed the MMR at $4.44 per jab compared with $0.29 for polio vaccine and $0.06 for combined diphtheria/tetanus inoculations.

The risk may be small, sceptics say, but it is real, so why won't the British Government own up to it – and allow parents the option of three separate jabs, as they do in the US, instead of insisting on the MMR or nothing?

Parents are caught in a ping-pong of contradictory assertions. When the MMR was stopped in Japan, lots of children died; but they were all too young to be vaccinated anyway. All the studies show the MMR is safe, but they were all based on "passive reporting" in which not all cases of autism were reported, only those where doctors suspected a link, and as no link is officially ever suspected... And so it goes on. Which is why I decided upon separate jabs, paid for privately, for my toddler.

For those parents who have yet to make the decision, a reiteration of the old position will not do. Nor will a PR campaign to reassert it in even more melodramatic form. If the Government wants to restore rates of vaccination to the old levels it needs to fund detailed research into the 1,600 children whose parents have registered claims that the MMR caused some form of brain or gastroenteritic damage since 1988 when the single vaccines were replaced by the MMR – and look at why that figure is so high compared with just 45 cases claiming vaccine-damage between 1967 and 1988 when measles, mumps and rubella jabs were given separately.

Either that or make the single doses available again on the NHS. But spare us Ms Hurley.