GCB Editorial team
27 August 2019
With the news of the decline in MMR vaccinations hitting the media outlets today, we examine how it is that a percentage of the population in a high-income country such as the UK decided against the MMR vaccine.
MMR Scaremongering, how it all started with Dr Andrew Wakefield
How did the UK end up to the point where we have become a nation that is now not considered a Measles free zone (World Health Organization, 2019, August, ). How did it get to the point where parents are so scared to have their infants vaccinated, that they not only ignore their GP’s advice but almost every health authority?
Well it all started with Dr Andrew Wakefield’s article called “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children” published in the Lancet in February 1998, which has been subsequently retracted. That’s over 21 years ago now! Let’s quickly review what was found in this article. The aim of the article was to investigate if chronic enterocolitis (inflammation of the digestive tract) is linked to regressive developmental behaviour, whilst also looking at the correlation with the MMR vaccine. 12 children were recruited in this study and underwent several invasive procedures including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures (under sedation) all to assess chronic enterocolitis. Behavioural symptoms were reported in 8 of the 12 participants (Wakefield et al., 1998).
Unfortunately, it was found out later that Dr Andrew Wakefield was being paid £50,000 by a solicitor firm by way of legal aid money to assist the firm in preparing a case against MMR (Goldache, 2008). Dr Ben Goldache states in his book (Bad Science) that a young PhD named Nick Chadwick using DNA technology found no evidence of the genetic material of measles in the stools of any of the 12 children that participated in this study. Nick Chadwick started his PhD in the Dr Andrew Wakefield’s clinic.
The real problem though was not with the retracted article the media is the true culprit
The public was under the impression that Doctors and Health Scientists were divided over the safety concerns for MMR. Only 1 in 4 people were aware that the bulk of the evidence was in favour of the vaccination and that the bulk of evidence was provided by the Doctors and Health Scientists that were apparently equally divided (Dobson, 2003). This vital piece of information should have been relayed to the public by the media, instead it wasn’t, and more and more headlines came out stating the jury was out on the safety of the MMR vaccine.
(Credit Daily Mail, February 2002)
(Credit The Sun August, 2007)
(Credit Daily Mail, March 2019)
The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews conducted a ‘Systematic Review’ in 2016 and to quote the review:
“We could assess no significant association between MMR immunisation and the following conditions: autism, asthma, leukaemia, hayfever, type 1 diabetes, gait disturbance, Crohn’s disease, demyelinating diseases, or bacterial or viral infections. The methodological quality of many of the included studies made it difficult to generalise their result”
The review included 14,700,000 children in 27 cohort studies, 17 case-controlled studies, 5 times series trials, one case cross-over trial, two ecological studies, six self-controlled case series studies (Demicheli et al., 2005). Fair to say far more comprehensive than the study by Dr Wakefield.
The next safety issue with the MMR and other vaccinations was the preservative Thimerosal, which is a vaccine suspension agent that ensures no growth of fungi or bacteria grow in the vaccine. Thimerosal contains mercury which is one of the top ten chemicals that cause health concerns considered by the World Health Organisation (WHO). However, WHO have stated that they have monitored the Thimerosal health concerns for over 10 years and have conclusively stated there is no need for alarm (World Health Organization, 2011, October ). Regardless of whether one thinks that Thimerosal causes health problems, it’s been removed from UK vaccines since 2005. This is an exact extract from the vaccine knowledge project.
“Thiomersal was removed from UK vaccines between 2003 and 2005 and is no longer found in any of the childhood or adult vaccines routinely used in the UK. Before 2005, thiomersal was present in diphtheria- and tetanus-containing vaccines, as well as hepatitis B vaccine and some flu vaccines. It was not used in the MMR vaccine, the Hib vaccine, the MenC vaccine, the oral polio vaccine or the BCG vaccine. Thiomersal was present in the Swine Flu (H1N1) vaccine Pandemrix, used in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 flu seasons in the UK. However, it is not present in any of the annual flu vaccines currently in use in the UK.” (Project, 2019, 4 July)
Andrew Wakefield in 1998 produced a very small research article looking at the inflammation of the digestive system and regressed development in infants and then linking this to the MMR vaccine. That article was picked up by the media, which had the public believe that the scientific community was at odds with each other, when in fact the bulk of the evidence suggests the MMR vaccine was entirely safe. Thimerosal although safe has now been removed from UK vaccines.
If the media acted responsibly, contacting the right health scientists and not hastily (the media has this problem of always trying to be first, it doesn’t matter if you’re right) then health information would be more concisely transmitted to the public. Twenty one years since the article, which again was retracted, the media has helped popularise the idea that the MMR is unsafe. Nothing could be further from the truth and we all have a duty in the UK to ensure the MMR is given to our infants. How do we do this? The media, who are now reporting about the MMR problems should now foot the bill for an MMR vaccination campaign.
DEMICHELI, V., JEFFERSON, T., RIVETTI, A. & PRICE, D. 2005. Vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, CD004407.
DOBSON, R. 2003. Media misled the public over the MMR vaccine, study says. BMJ, 326, 1107.
GOLDACHE, B. 2008. Bad Science London Fourth Estate
PROJECT, V. K. 2019, 4 July. Vaccine ingredients, [Online]. Available: http://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vaccine-ingredients#thiomersal [Accessed 19 July, 2019,].
WAKEFIELD, A. J., MURCH, S. H., ANTHONY, A., LINNELL, J., CASSON, D. M., MALIK, M., BERELOWITZ, M., DHILLON, A. P., THOMSON, M. A., HARVEY, P., VALENTINE, A., DAVIES, S. E. & WALKER-SMITH, J. A. 1998. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet, 351, 637-41.
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. 2011, October Thiomersal – questions and answers, [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/immunization/newsroom/thiomersal_questions_and_answers/en/ [Accessed 19 August, 2019,].
WORLD HEALTH ORGANIZATION. 2019, August, . New measles surveillance data from who [Online]. Available: https://www.who.int/immunization/newsroom/new-measles-data-august-2019/en/ [Accessed 19 August, 2019,].