Leading article: A risky move that may revive parents' fears

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One has to hope the General Medical Council knew what it was doing when it decided to bring charges against the doctor behind the boycott of the MMR vaccine, as this newspaper reveals today. Serious professional misconduct is about as bad a charge as its gets, and if the charges are made to stick Andrew Wakefield may well be struck off.

Many members of the medical profession, not to mention parents who were appalled by the panic he generated, might cheer such an outcome to the rafters.

Dr Wakefield's research paper of 1998, published in The Lancet that February and purporting to show a link between the vaccine and diseases that trigger autism, had consequences well beyond those that The Lancet's editors can ever have anticipated. Parents shied away en masse from immunising their children, after which the incidence soared of such diseases as measles and mumps. The rise in the rate of mumps, from just over 4,000 cases in 2003 to more than 56,000 last year, was particularly alarming, and was directly linked to the parents' boycott. Doctors and medical experts raged against what they saw as an almost medieval superstition gripping a generation of parents.

But it was surely permissible for a doctor to raise objections to MMR vaccine in a publication such as The Lancet, where his assertions could be tested against scientific opinion. The medical profession had also erred in insisting on the vaccine being given as a multi-jab, instead of leaving it up to parents to choose themselves to have individual jabs.

The great danger now, however, is that the GMC's action may simply backfire. The charges levelled against the doctor are so grave that the GMC may have difficulty in proving them. Even if they succeed, there is a danger that Dr Wakefield may be cast in a martyr's role - medicine's equivalent of Jan Hus, the Czech heretic burnt at Constance in 1415 for having embarrassed and angered the Catholic Church by pointing out some home truths.

Either eventuality may have the effect of reviving public interest in the MMR saga, injecting new life into a debate which had started to lose momentum. For there is no doubt that the initial effect of Dr Wakefield's warnings has faded and that the boycott of the MMR jab had lost its force, giving rise to hopes that infection rates for measles, mumps and rubella would soon fall back down again.

It would be ironic and unfortunate if the GMC, with the best of intentions, inadvertently reawakened public concern over the safety of the MMR vaccine, reviving fears which time, unaided, was slowly laying to rest.

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