Leading article: The true causes of a public health firestorm

Dr Andrew Wakefield should not take all the blame for this scare

Share
Related Topics

For a scientific paper which has been so utterly debunked, Dr Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism continues to exert a quite extraordinary influence over public life. The anger on display yesterday from Dr Wakefield's supporters when their champion was found guilty by the General Medical Council of professional misconduct in his research of 12 years ago underlines the enduring passions that surround this issue.

Dr Wakefield has accused the GMC of staging a sort of show trial, designed to punish him for daring to dissent from the views of the medical establishment regarding the safety of this vaccine. This seems a conspiracy theory too far. But, in a way, it is a pity there has not been a real inquest into the MMR debacle because there are many lessons from that affair that have still not been properly learned.

If there were such an investigation, Dr Wakefield would certainly need to accept a portion of the blame. His original 1998 research paper, co-authored with several colleagues from the Royal Free Hospital, was cautious and provisional in its conclusions. Yet at a subsequent press conference Dr Wakefield made the wild recommendation that parents should avoid giving their children the combined MMR jab on safety grounds. After that, he could have recognised his mistake and appealed for calm. But instead he chose to dig the hole deeper. And he has been blind ever since to the overwhelming evidence that has contradicted his theory.

That said, stubborn mavericks are hardly unknown. And the fact that Dr Wakefield's theories are unsupported by the evidence does not mean he ought to be silenced. Moreover, a single doctor, no matter how headstrong, cannot plausibly be held responsible for a health scare that has persisted for more than a decade.

Several other factors were necessary to set off this public health firestorm. The medical authorities need to accept some responsibility. In responding to the concerns of parents about the MMR jab, they got their tone wrong. Their public statements in support of the triple jab often came across as patronising and arrogant. They failed to take on board parents' deep anxieties over matters relating to their children's health.

The Government's response was inadequate too. Ministers were slow to react to public concerns and their refusal to countenance the idea of allowing parents to choose to have the three jabs administered to their children separately, though medically correct, probably stoked the panic. To some extent they also paid a price for previous misleading governmental assurances in the early 1990s over the health threat posed by BSE.

Finally, the media has lessons to learn. The press and television stations were perfectly justified in reporting Dr Wakefield's concerns in detail. But, too often, they failed to emphasise just how little evidence there was to support his assertions. In all likelihood, the MMR debacle would not have occured – and would certainly not have lasted so long – without a combination of all these factors.

Dr Wakefield is wrong to claim that he has been punished by a vengeful medical establishment. His misdemeanours in the conduct of his original research – though towards the milder end of the spectrum – were real. Yet this maverick should certainly not stand alone as a figure of vilification when we look back on the most damaging and persistent health scare of recent years.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower