A Mountain out of a Mump Hill

In 1998 Dr Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a paper in The Lancet, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

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By  Joanne Bladd Published  August 16, 2006

In 1998 Dr Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a paper in The Lancet, suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Eight years, one Lancet retraction and thousands of unimmunised children later, and Britain is facing its worst measles epidemic since the jab was introduced, yet parents worldwide are still divided over whether Dr Wakefield is a hero or a health risk.

Aside from the obvious health implications of a huge measles outbreak, the point that really stands for me in the whole debacle is how a single paper could have snowballed into an international backlash against vaccinations.

It’s almost awe-inspiring; despite Dr Wakefield being repeatedly discredited, the subject of professional misconduct charges, and later revealing he was being paid to advise the parents of autistic children whether there might be a case for compensation, he remains the pin-up boy for a range of international charities slavishly devoted to banning the jab.

What’s almost more surprising than how decades of medical expertise can be swept away by a few alarmist headlines, is how the general public is always so prepared to believe the worst of the profession. As the number of unprotected children show, parents would sooner place their faith in sensationalist myth than sound medical expertise.

Now compare that to the speed with which alternative therapies are embraced by the wider public. Often unproved and practiced by unqualified staff (I, for one, find it hard to believe that a two-day course qualifies you as a ‘Reiki master’), they boast an uptake rate that basic preventive therapies could only dream of.

Improved diagnoses and treatments aside, if the medical profession is to have any hope of progressing healthcare in the next decade, the first point of call has to be changing this imbalance. Only by persuading the public about the importance of sound, clinically proven care will there be a reduction in widespread disease.

When it comes to consumers, the bottom line is they do believe the hype; so perhaps it’s about time we started making more of it.

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