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I was there when Wakefield dropped his bombshell

Jeremy Laurance
Friday 29 January 2010 01:00 GMT

I vividly remember the press conference called by the Royal Free Hospital in February 1998 to publicise Andrew Wakefield's research paper in The Lancet. It was one of the biggest public relations disasters in medicine.

The Lancet knew it had a potentially explosive paper on its hands. It was sent to four specialists for peer review and discussed by the Lancet's editorial committee on three occasions. Critics said the sample of patients (12 children) was too small and not random. The journal dealt with these concerns by commissioning a highly sceptical commentary, published alongside the paper. But it made no mention of the MMR study in its weekly press release, an early sign of its anxiety about triggering what it rightly feared would be a media frenzy.

The Royal Free took a different tack. It decided to deal with the inevitable press interest head on. It called a press conference before a panel of five doctors, led by Professor Arie Zuckerman (a virologist and dean of the medical school, but not an author of the paper), who were carefully selected to present a balanced view. All were eminent in their own fields but, fatally, each had a different opinion.

The five had rehearsed the press conference in advance and agreed the line they would take, which was to recommend continued use of the MMR vaccine pending further research. Under questioning, however, this carefully constructed consensus fell apart.

The five of them were sitting behind a table with Andrew Wakefield on the extreme left and Arie Zuckerman on the right. The tension rose as the event progressed and by the end Wakefield was coolly urging parents to give their children single vaccines at annual intervals, while Zuckerman was on his feet, banging the lectern in frustration as he insisted that the MMR vaccine had been given to millions of children around the world and was safe.

As we left the press conference, we reporters went into a huddle as we struggled to make sense of what we had heard. That afternoon the Government issued what was to be the first of many statements that desperately sought to bolster public confidence in MMR.

Next morning's headlines, inevitably, highlighted the potential risks from MMR. In the years following, national vaccination rates against MMR fell from above 90 per cent to below 80 per cent, dropping so low in some areas that measles outbreaks have occurred.

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