Wakefield Lancet Paper Controversy
The controversy began to gain momentum in 2001 and 2002, after Wakefield published papers which suggested that the immunisation programme was not safe. These were a review paper with no new evidence, published in a minor journal, and two papers on laboratory work which he claimed showed that measles virus had been found in tissue samples taken from children who had autism and bowel problems. There was wide media coverage including distressing anecdotal evidence from parents, and political coverage attacking the health service and government peaked with unmet demands that Prime minister Tony Blair reveal whether his infant son, Leo, had been given the vaccine. It was the biggest science story of 2002, with 1257 articles mostly written by non-expert commentators. In the period January to September 2002, 32% of the stories written about MMR mentioned Leo Blair, as opposed to only 25% which mentioned Wakefield. Less than a third of the stories mentioned the overwhelming evidence that MMR is safe. The paper, press conference and video sparked a major health scare in the United Kingdom. As a result of the scare, full confidence in MMR fell from 59% to 41% after publication of the Wakefield research. In 2001, 26% of family doctors felt the government had failed to prove there was no link between MMR and autism and bowel disease. In his book Bad Science, Ben Goldacre describes the MMR vaccine scare as one of the "three all-time classic bogus science stories" by the British newspapers (the other two are the Arpad Pusztai affair about genetically modified crops, and Chris Malyszewicz and the MRSA hoax).
Confidence in the MMR vaccine increased as it became clearer that Wakefield's claims were unsupported by scientific evidence. A 2003 survey of 366 family doctors in the UK reported that 77% of them would advise giving the MMR vaccine to a child with a close family history of autism, and that 3% of them thought that autism could sometimes be caused by the MMR vaccine. A similar survey in 2004 found that these percentages changed to 82% and at most 2%, respectively, and that confidence in MMR had been increasing over the previous two years.
A factor in the controversy is that only the combined vaccine is available through the UK National Health Service. The importation license for the single measles vaccine was withdrawn in 1988, and as of 2010 there are no single vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella licensed for use in the UK. Prime minister Tony Blair gave support to the programme, arguing that the vaccine was safe enough for his own son, Leo, but refusing on privacy grounds to state whether Leo had received the vaccine; in contrast, the subsequent Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, explicitly confirmed that his son has been immunised. Cherie Blair confirmed that Leo had been given the MMR vaccination when promoting her autobiography.
Administration of the combined vaccine instead of separate vaccines decreases the risk of children catching the disease while waiting for full immunisation coverage. The combined vaccine's two injections results in less pain and distress to the child than the six injections required by separate vaccines, and the extra clinic visits required by separate vaccinations increases the likelihood of some being delayed or missed altogether; vaccination uptake significantly increased in the UK when MMR was introduced in 1988. Health professionals have heavily criticized media coverage of the controversy for triggering a decline in vaccination rates. There is no scientific basis for preferring separate vaccines, or for using any particular interval between separate vaccines.
John Walker-Smith, a coauthor of Wakefield's report and a supporter of the MMR vaccine, wrote in 2002 that epidemiology has shown that MMR is safe in most children, but observed that epidemiology is a blunt tool and studies can miss at-risk groups that have a real link between MMR and autism. However, if a rare subtype of autism were reliably identified by clinical or pathological characteristics, epidemiological research could address the question whether MMR causes that autism subtype. There is no scientific evidence that MMR causes damage to the infant immune system, and there is much evidence to the contrary.
In 2001, Berelowitz, one of the co-authors of the paper, said "I am certainly not aware of any convincing evidence for the hypothesis of a link between MMR and autism". The Canadian Paediatric Society, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, and the UK National Health Service have all concluded that there is no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and a 2011 journal article described the vaccine-autism connection as "the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years".
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