In 2003 Heidi Larson was leading Unicef’s worldwide communications strategy for new vaccine rollouts in partnership with Gavi, the international vaccine alliance. She was embroiled in countering the Nigerian boycott of the polio vaccination, while elsewhere the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) scandal had begun to hit the headlines – unsubstantiated rumours linking the MMR vaccine to autism had been circulating for years and been given unfounded credence by a paper published in The Lancet. She realised distrust in vaccines was growing – most of her time seemed to be spent firefighting the escalating problem rather than focusing on clinical trials and vaccine delivery.
“When Wakefield’s paper on MMR and autism was published, it went global,” says Larson. “It was a tragedy for people and for vaccines.” In 1998 British physician Andrew Wakefield published his now notorious paper, making unfounded and erroneous links between children receiving the vaccination and later developing autism and inflammatory bowel disease. Wakefield was eventually discredited and struck off the medical register, but the damage was done.
“In the UK alone, he set the cause of vaccination back 15 years,” says Larson. “Measles vaccination dropped off dramatically and it’s still wobbling.” The UK had regained its World Health Organissation (WHO) measles elimination status in 2017 but lost it again last year meaning measles is transmitting once more between people in the UK. “We are still mapping the fallout from Wakefield on social media,” Larson says. “He’s still out there and what he says about autism is still out there. He’s well-funded too. We are still fighting the fiction.” Perhaps unsurprisingly Wakefield has now added Covid denial to his CV.
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