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