Yvonne Roberts says government information on
the MMR vaccine has been “partial in the extreme”.
Once upon a time, contracting measles was
considered the best way of providing training the body to fight off
disease. Furthermore, once a child had had the illness, he or she
was immune for life, a guarantee that no vaccination can
This could have been the beginning of a
constructive dialogue between the government and the public on the
issue of the MMR vaccine and its possible connections with autism
and bowel disease.
Instead, government information has been
partial in the extreme – do we hear much of the accepted risks from
the vaccine, such as encephalitis, swollen joints and convulsions?
It has also exaggerated the dangers of not having the MMR to the
point of crude propaganda.
A hundred years ago, out of a million cases of
measles, 1,200 children would die. In the early 1960s, there were
as many as 400,000 cases a year but death, and serious, lasting
complications remained rare. In 1994, a measles epidemic was
predicted – in part because 10 per cent of children even after
vaccination may contract the disease. A shocking television
commercial was shown in which a child was killed by measles. At the
time of the campaign, 15 per cent of mothers considered measles to
be “very serious” – afterwards, the figure had risen to 55 per
Eight years on, the political map is very
different. The electorate is more sophisticated, with strong
reasons not to trust official advice. Remember BSE?
Nineteenth-century “We know what’s good for
you” paternalism no longer works, although the new £3m
advertising campaign will give it a go. In France, the electorate
are treated as responsible grown-ups so the single vaccine is
available. Here, Sir Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer,
threatens to resign if a single vaccine is permitted.
One positive result of this mess is the light
shone on autism. At the start of Autism Awareness Year, the
government has announced that £2.5m will be given to research
into a condition that has increased sevenfold since 1988. Jacqui
Smith, the health minister, has already ruled out further
investigation into the MMR link. Researchers in the US are more
open-minded. They believe that the syndrome may be due to one or
more factors, including environmental, genetic, neuropathological,
biochemical and – sorry Ms Smith – immunological.
Let’s hope that if the research into autism
even hints at a connection with vaccination, the welfare of our
children matters more than the red faces of ministers.