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Posts Tagged ‘MMR’

Sheepish

I felt sheepish this week when I learned that Andrew Wakefield, the doctor at the centre of the MMR/autism scare, had been dismissed as “dishonest” and “irresponsible” by the GMC. Sheepish because the MMR scare was at its height when my son was very small, and I didn’t think I could forgive myself if he developed autism as a result of a jab I’d chosen to let him have, so what did I do? I joined the hordes of middle-class parents who rushed with fear in their hearts and confusion in their minds to independent doctors and paid inordinately large sums of money to obtain “singles”. “What did you do about the MMR?” “Oh, we had singles, I just couldn’t take the risk.” “Yup, we paid for singles.” The refrain was the same at all the toddler groups, NCT coffee mornings, baby massage groups and breastfeeding support clinics I attended that year and I joined the clamour. Smugly, I thought I was doing the right thing.

And based on what? I’d read two, perhaps three articles in national newspapers highlighting a potential link between the MMR combined vaccine – which, I might add, my older daughter had been given to no ill effect – and autism. Scientific papers baffle and bore me; even if I’d had access to them or known where I could read them, I wouldn’t have been able to understand them, so I trusted the good old media to boil the facts down into something small and palatable to my mummying tastes. I don’t think I’m stupid, but I’m a lawyer, not a scientist. I need statutes to guide me, however wordily written, and preferably a good meaty bundle of case law to back them up. I didn’t have those, so I took my usual cunning and reliable approach to anything I don’t quite understand and I ran with the herd. I still don’t think I did anything wrong; I’m just a bit embarrassed by my overreaction these days, a bit, as I say, sheepish. I don’t mention the “singles” in polite company. My youngest child – three years later – had the MMR.

Ben Goldacre points out in the Guardian that the irresponsible media coverage of Andrew Wakefield’s findings contributed massively to the nationwide MMR scare. I agree with him, of course – media coverage affected my decisions directly. But I would also blame myself, and people like me, who despite being relatively well-educated, well-informed adults, fool themselves that they have done “research” by skim-reading a broadsheet or two. Or maybe that’s just me…

(Incidentally, I have just this week received a letter asking me to confirm an appointment for my toddler to have the swine flu vaccine – or not. I may toss a coin).

[See also this post for another laptopmum’s view on MMR]

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MMR and Me

My eldest child was born in 2001 amidst all the todo about MMR, sparked by Andrew Wakefield’s paper in The Lancet in 1998. Living in affluent SW London at the time (although by no means affluent myself, sadly) I was surrounded by those who had it in their means to spurn the MMR and ‘go for the singles’ (single vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella) rather than the triple cocktail of the MMR. And they did a lot of spurning. Of the 9 couples in my ‘baby group’ all of them, except us, said NO! to the MMR and trotted off to a Harley Street clinic to get their children vaccinated at not inconsiderable expense. Due to a recommended wait between vaccinations, a short term unavailability of the mumps vaccine, the necessity of a second booster of each one, and general slackness/ineptitude/forgetfulness of the parents, some of the children weren’t fully vaccinated until they were 3 or 4. Not good.

We meanwhile had our daughter injected with the MMR. The very same MMR that Wakefield and assorted frothing journos told us was a ‘cause’ of autism. I was lucky. My career before motherhood was as a research scientist and latterly as someone who was responsible for reading medical studies claiming to find a causal link between A and B and to decide if they were talking rubbish. So I went to the source and read the original Lancet article. I didn’t know of any of the ethics violations that Dr Wakefield supposedly notched up during the study, but it was enough for me that this supposedly groundbreaking study that caused all the hooha was based on 12 children. Yes, just 12. Ha! I read around a bit more and found that many people failed to find any evidence of a causal link between autism and MMR. I felt pretty confident that it was all a storm in a teacup.

But you know, even though I had this knowledge I still held my breath and mentally crossed my fingers behind my back as the needle went into my daughter’s arm (or was it leg – how quickly we forget!). Was I responsible for making a decision that would change her forever? I admit to some anxiety. But actually what I felt most was anger. Anger that a ludicrously inept study had been published in the Lancet, which they later justified as it was ‘news’. Anger at a trigger happy ‘scientist’ with an agenda who had pushed his views onto parents ill equipped to decipher good science from hackery. And anger at the media (I am looking at you Daily Mail, although apparently the Observer isn’t squeaky clean either) for frothing at the mouth with the thought of a delicious story of conspiracy without thought for whether it was valid, and for largely ignoring the ‘real’ story of all the other studies that failed to corroborate the original findings. [Don’t even get me started on the ridiculous sideshow of trying to get Tony Blair to say yay or nay regarding his son Leo!] Thanks very much the lot of you for giving countless parents sleepless nights, not to mention endangering many children due to resultant ineffective levels of vaccination in the community.

And now, we have a witch hunt against Wakefield (don’t get me wrong, he kind of deserves it) by the very media who were partly responsible for all the palaver in the first place. And the Lancet now pompously retracts the original study. Ha! If they weren’t so concerned with publishing the ‘hottest’ news and headline seeking bollocks then the whole thing never would have happened in the first place. In my career as a scientist I often saw mediocre science published in high profile journals because it was ‘sexy’ (urgh!), whereas more thorough research would be spurned as it was too ‘dry’ or ‘utilitarian’. It kind of makes you want to leave the profession. Oh yeah, I did. Ha!

By the time it came to vaccinate my second child in 2004, the furore had died down as had the angst, Harley Street clinics had to look elsewhere for their extra cash and the media was more worried about bird flu than MMR. The whole thing still pisses me off though.

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