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Artillery Row

The disingenuous anti-vax blame game

People have short memories about the MMR scare

Here’s a little game you can pay on Twitter/X. When something bad happens, dig up something that your political opponents once said and blame it on them. For example, if an asylum seeker gets attacked, find an article by Richard Littlejohn saying mean things about asylum seekers and hold him responsible. Alternatively, if an asylum seeker attacks someone, find a photo of a Labour MP holding a sign saying “Refugees welcome” and pin the blame on them. This will prove that you were right all along.

There is nothing wrong with the blame game per se. Somebody is usually responsible when bad things happen and they should be held accountable. But it can sometimes look like a lazy attempt to settle old scores and curry favour with the in-group. 

Last week, the UK Health Security Agency declared a national incident after cases of measles rose sharply and urged parents to get their children vaccinated. The childhood vaccination rate for measles is well below the 95 per cent needed to maintain herd immunity. In London, only 74 per cent of five year olds have had the MMR vaccine. Rates in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Nottingham are not much better. 

This seems to be a hangover from the COVID-19 pandemic for two reasons. Firstly because healthcare services were disrupted and people found it difficult to see a GP, and secondly because misinformation about the COVID-19 gave the broader anti-vax movement a shot in the arm (if you will) by taking people who were previously uninterested in such things down a rabbit hole.

No doubt there are other factors at play, but this is the proximate cause for the unusually low rates of MMR uptake at the moment. On mid-wit Twitter, however, the blame obviously lies with Daily Mail articles from twenty years ago. A Daily Mail front page from 2002 and a Melanie Phillips op-ed from 2005 were dredged up and tweeted out with words to the effect of “blood on their hands” by exactly the kind of people you would expect (Alastair Campbell, Otto English, etc.). There were calls for the Mail to apologise for publishing so many anti-MMR articles for so long, despite the fact that the newspaper has already expressed “profound regret” and in 2019 launched a campaign to get children vaccinated with the MMR jab. 

If we’re going hark back to 2002 to find a culprit for the current situation, why not go back another four years to where it all started in The Lancet? If Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent study linking the MMR vaccine to gastrointestinal disease and autism hadn’t been published in one of the world’s top medical journals, he may still have made a career for himself as a celebrity anti-vaxxer, but it is unlikely that the newspapers would have taken his claims seriously if he had been a mere blogger. 

One thing about the Wakefield affair that isn’t talked about enough is that even if the study had not been fraudulent it was unworthy of publication in a journal of The Lancet’s stature. It involved just twelve children, eight of whom had parents who believed the MMR vaccine had something to do with their behavioural disorders. As it transpired, the children had not spontaneously presented themselves at a hospital but had been hand-picked by Wakefield to create a narrative, but it was feeble evidence either way and amounted to little more than hearsay. The decision of The Lancet’s editor Richard Horton to publish the study gave it far more publicity and gravitas than it would have deserved even if it were an honest piece of research. It should have come as no surprise when it led to an international health scare.

By 2004, the MMR-autism narrative had fallen apart

By 2004, the MMR-autism narrative had fallen apart and Wakefield’s financial interests in the scare had been exposed, but Horton did not fully retract the study until the General Medical Council struck Wakefield off the Medical Register and described his conduct as “dishonest and irresponsible” in 2010, twelve years after it was published. According to Brian Deer, who uncovered Wakefield’s fraud in the Sunday Times, Horton was opposed to the GMC getting involved in the matter at all.

The Daily Mail’s coverage of the issue was worse than most, but once The Lancet presented peer-reviewed evidence for the MMR-autism claim, every media outlet gave Wakefield sympathetic coverage from time to time. The Guardian published an article headlined “Why my child won’t have the MMR jab” in 2001. Another Guardian article that year began: “What is perhaps most surprising about Andrew Wakefield is his apparent lack of bitterness.” In 2003, Channel 5 broadcast a drama titled Hear the Silence that portrayed Wakefield as a hero. Private Eye published a 32 page special report pushing the MMR-autism theory in 2002 and continued to bang the drum for another five years.

The events of twenty years ago have cast a long shadow. Many people were taken in and an anti-vax movement took shape that has never gone away. It has been super-charged in the last few years but not because parents in Hackney have been flicking through back issues of the Daily Mail. The original sin lies with Andrew Wakefield for manufacturing the scare and Richard Horton for giving it respectability. Wakefield went off to make millions and date Elle MacPherson. Horton remains the editor of The Lancet.

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