A Perfect Scare

I HAVE seen many middle class manias in my time – do you remember when we were all meant to be keeling over with GM food poisoning? – but none has matched the dangerous frenzy caused by the false accusation that the MMR vaccination causes autism.

Normally poor health and low incomes go together. But half the cases of the new measles epidemic are in London because this is a city not only of great poverty but also with one of the highest concentration educated parents in the country.

“There are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them,” said George Orwell. MMR proved his point.

It was clear early on that Andrew Wakefield’s link between the vaccine and autism could not hold. The Japanese city of Yokohama replaced MMR vaccinations with single jabs for measles, mumps and rubella. If Wakefield and the conspiracy theorists were right, autism rates should have collapsed. In fact, they went up.

No amount evidence could change parents’ minds, however. I had mothers’ with firsts from Britain’s best universities and senior jobs in the arts, business and finance swearing to me that their children would never be vaccinated. Journalists I once respected joined the frenzy. The parents and reporters had one thing in common: none had a science degree.

Deplore them though I did, I understood why mass hysteria took hold.

The MMR panic was the perfect story for an environmentally conscious generation which had a knee-jerk suspicion of authority. The lone dissident – Wakefield – was blowing the whistle on an unnatural medicine dreamt up by Frankenstein scientists. He was up against sinister forces – “big government”, “big pharma” and “the medical establishment” – that we knew in our casually cynical way were wicked by definition. The more the authorities tried to discredit him, the louder his supporters shouted “cover-up”.

Put like this, the MMR panic that gripped my generation of graduates sounds understandable – foolish and reckless, to be sure – but understandable nevertheless.

But there was always a dark side to it, and it is getting darker by the week. Wakefield did not tell the medical journal which published his theory of a potential conflict of interest. Parents who wanted to bring a legal action claiming that MMR had damaged their children were paying him. Now the Sunday Times says it have seen evidence that he manipulated patients’ data in the study interested parties helped fund.

Wakefield denies the charge, and I hope for his sake he’s right. It is one thing to make a mistake, quite another to deliberately mislead. My gullible middle class friends are not lightly crossed. They will be viciously unforgiving if they find out that they have been conned

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3 thoughts on “A Perfect Scare

  1. Many people nowadays think of themselves as cynics. The problem is that sheer pig ignorance and naivety form a very poor foundation for this belief.

  2. Excellent article. One other point that should be made is that Andrew Wakefield’s ‘middle class friends’ include JABS, the rabidly anti-vaccine pressure group who instructed him in the first place.

    It’s worth judging a man by his friends (Andrew Wakefield is a real poster boy for them); reading between the lines of their website is an insightful experience for anyone interested in why hysteria about the MMR took hold in this country. Remember, for the past few years, every new MMR scare article was accompanied by an approving quote from one of the JABS spokespeople.

    If you hold yourself up as a spokesperson, you can’t hide behind the “I’m a concerned parent” line. The leadership of JABS must now stand up and take responsibility for the pending epidemic. Unfortuntately, there seems to be little contrition from them now.

  3. “Put like this, the MMR panic that gripped my generation of graduates sounds understandable – foolish and reckless, to be sure – but understandable nevertheless.”

    Only as an illustration of arrogant, blinkered idiocy.

    “They will be viciously unforgiving if they find out that they have been conned.”

    Yes, it’s a tale of betrayal and comeuppance almost as inspiring as the original David versus Goliath story.

    Cookie-cutter prejudice-confirming presentations of science by humanities graduate journalists are the problem, not the solution.

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