It’s 2013. Enough With the “False Balance” on the MMR vaccine

It’s tempting to blame the re-emergence of measles in the United Kingdom squarely on Andrew Wakefield. After all, Wakefield’s 1998 paper in the Lancet (now retracted) attempted to link the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine with autism. This research was later shown to be fraudulent. His actions was so heinous that he was eventually stripped of his medical license for unethical behavior, including research misconduct and undeclared conflicts of interest. But not before a long period of “false balance” in the UK media that repeatedly offered fringe, scientifically unsupported opinions that the MMR vaccine safety was in question. Why would the media do this? Controversy sells. The brave maverick physician standing up against the medical establishment – Big Pharma, even. But this was a narrative completely out of line with the facts. There has never been any serious scientific controversy about the MMR vaccine and autism – none. Carefully controlled studies, conducted after Wakefield’s initial paper, have failed to show any relationship. Yet the reporting didn’t reflect this, for years. False balance has the potential to be incredibly damaging. I’ve pointed out in the past that viewing anti-vaccine material for only five to ten minutes increased the perception of risk of vaccination, and decreased the perception of risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccination decreases. This is a common tactic of antivaccinationists – raising questions about safety and effectiveness. And it’s something the UK media continued for several years, until Wakefield was eventually investigated, discredited, and disgraced.

With Wakefield losing his medical license, the media coverage seemed to start shifting away from “false balance” into communicating a more accurate perspective – that Wakefield’s work was bogus and quite likely driven by undeclared conflicts of interest. Certainly several stories I’ve seen over the past few years have described antivaccinationists views more accurately – as fringe perspectives without scientific credibility. I was heartened fairly recently to see a significant victory in Australia, where the Orwellian “Australian Vaccination Network”, a defiantly anti-vaccine organization, has been ordered to change its name because of its position on vaccines. My hope was that the tide was turning into more cautious and accurate reporting on vaccine safety and public health.

So now that it’s been a decade of addressing fears of vaccines causing autism, has the damage been undone? Sadly, no. Last week I noticed an American poll of over 1200 voters on a variety of conspiracy topics. To the question “Do you believe there is a link between childhood vaccines and autism, or not?” 20% said “do” and 34% said “not sure”, with 46% saying “do not”. If that poll’s accurate, that’s 62 million Americans who believe there’s a link, when that link has been definitively disproved. Quite the legacy for Wakefield. Back in the UK, Wakefield’s home turf, vaccination rates plummeted and while they did start to recover, it wasn’t before before measles was declared endemic in 2008, meaning immunization rates were insufficient to control the spread of the disease. There is currently an active outbreak of measles in Wales – almost 700 cases reported so far, with that number expected to double. And frighteningly, but no unexpectedly, the United Kingdom may have its first measles death in years.

Andrew Wakefield: Concern Troll

Given the demonstrable public health harms driven by Andrew Wakefield, I was stunned to see images of yesterday’s Independent:

MMR scare doctor: this outbreak proves I was right

Yep, it’s Wakefield quoted:

The discredited doctor who triggered the MMR scare 15 years ago has pinned the blame for the outbreak of measles in south Wales on the Government.

In an extraordinary intervention, Andrew Wakefield, who was struck off the medical register, said the “British Government is entirely culpable” for the outbreak and accused officials of “putting price before children’s health” – despite a widespread consensus that it was the panic over his flawed research that led to the surge in the disease.

It’s not until the 15th paragraph that his comments are rebutted. It’s textbook false balance. And amazingly, inside the paper, Wakefield’s statement is reproduced in full:

Now it takes a certain chutzpah (to be polite) to manufacture fears about the MMR vaccine, continue to propagate those fears for over a decade (despite evidence showing you’re wrong), watch vaccination rates drop and measles re-emerge, and then declare victory. Yet that’s exactly what Wakefield does, in a statement that the Independent seems to have copied verbatim from the antivaccine group Age of Autism’s website:

Measles cases in the UK rose when the government withdrew the importation licence for the single measles vaccine leaving concerned parents with no choice. When I demanded to know why, if the government’s principal concern was to protect children from measles, it would prevent parents with genuine safety concerns over MMR from protecting their children, Elizabeth Miller of the Health Protection Agency responded, “…if we allowed parents the choice of single measles vaccines it would destroy our MMR programme.” The government’s concern appeared to be to protect the MMR programme over and above the protection of children.

Despite the claim of David Salisbury, head of the UK’s Immunisation Division, that MMR has, “an exemplary safety record”, two of the three brands introduced in 1988 had to be withdrawn for safety reasons – they caused meningitis.

Government officials had approved these dangerous vaccines – Pluserix and Immravax – giving them the great majority of the UK market despite knowing that they were high risk and despite having been warned explicitly of their dangers. These government officials put price before children’s health and have been seeking to cover up this shameful fact ever since.

The US government has paid out millions of dollars to children whose autism followed vaccine-induced brain damage. A recent government concession in the US Vaccine Court confirms that the parents’ claims were valid all along. In a recently published December 13, 2012 vaccine court ruling, hundreds of thousands of dollars were awarded to Ryan Mojabi, whose parents described how “MMR vaccinations”, caused a “severe and debilitating injury to his brain, diagnosed as Autism Spectrum Disorder [‘ASD’]”.

As is usual for Wakefield, he is still disingenuous and lays on the conspiracy theories thick and fast. The MMR vaccine is superior to single vaccines (for which Wakefield had coincidentally sought to patent). Pluserix and Immravax may have had higher risks compared to other MMR vaccines, but it’s not relevant to the drop in vaccination rates – Pluserix and Immravax had been off the market for six years before Wakefield published his “research”. Ryan Mojabi may indeed have suffered a rare adverse effect of a vaccine but was never diagnosed with autism.  And so on. Wakefield does his best concern troll, positioning himself as the voice of wisdom on the safety of the MMR vaccine. It’s the “I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m pro-safe vaccine” tactic so common among antivaccinationists.  He fails to note the extensive data that shows his hypothesis is demonstrably false and there are now hundreds of papers that support this conclusion.

Why would the Independent do this? Martin Robbins, writing in the New Statesmen, writes very critically about the Independent’s health writer, Jeremy Laurance:

On Twitter, the Independent’s health writer Jeremy Laurance has spent the day demanding that critics read the whole piece. “Jeeezus!”, he responded to Ben Goldacre and others at one point, “U have NOT read the story.” What Laurance fails to understand is that few people ever do read the whole story. Any competent journalist understands that people tend to grab the information at the top, and don’t always stick around until the end of the piece.

And besides, it’s not just the headline. Laurance’s article continues to put Wakefield’s point of view for a further 14 paragraphs, before giving over barely half that space to one contrary voice, addressing only a fraction of the points made. It would be a great example of the false balance inherent in ‘he-said, she-said’ reporting, except that it isn’t even balanced – Laurance provides a generous abundance of space for Wakefield to get his claims and conspiracy theories across, and appends a brief response from a real scientist at the end.

As Anthony Cox noted way back in 2007, this isn’t the first time that the Independent’s editor, Jeremy Laurance, has been criticized for its role in the MMR debacle. The Independent in particular seems to have demonstrated ignorance or indifference to the fact that it is also responsible for propagating these antivaccine fears.  As Robbins continues:

Jeremy Laurance has a history of reacting badly to the idea that health and science journalists deserve scrutiny. What he doesn’t seem to grasp is that this is not an abstract public health debate between a few angry people on Twitter – he, and journalists like him, are putting the lives of real children at risk, their clumsy reporting stoking unwarranted fears about a safe vaccine.

Just like it has done before, the Independent is supporting the dissemination of unfounded and unsubstantiated messaging about the MMR vaccine that only serve to stoke fears. It’s clear now that Wakefield’s message would not have been so widespread had the media not fueled this antivaccine fire.  For the Independent to fail to recognize this, in the midst of a measles outbreak, is quite frankly, disgraceful.

16 thoughts on “It’s 2013. Enough With the “False Balance” on the MMR vaccine

    • Ian Leith says:

      Don’t any of these studies indicate support for Andrew Wakefield?

      http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131106202237.htm?utm_source=feedburner

      Here is a list of 28 studies from around the world that support Dr. Wakefield’s controversial findings:
      1. The Journal of Pediatrics November 1999; 135(5):559-63
      2. The Journal of Pediatrics 2000; 138(3): 366-372
      3. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003; 23(6): 504-517
      4. Journal of Neuroimmunology 2005
      5. Brain, Behavior and Immunity 1993; 7: 97-103
      6. Pediatric Neurology 2003; 28(4): 1-3
      7. Neuropsychobiology 2005; 51:77-85
      8. The Journal of Pediatrics May 2005;146(5):605-10
      9. Autism Insights 2009; 1: 1-11
      10. Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology February 2009; 23(2): 95-98
      11. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry 2009:21(3): 148-161
      12. Journal of Child Neurology June 29, 2009; 000:1-6
      13. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders March 2009;39(3):405-13
      14. Medical Hypotheses August 1998;51:133-144.
      15. Journal of Child Neurology July 2000; ;15(7):429-35
      16. Lancet. 1972;2:883–8

      17. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia January-March 1971;1:48-62
      18. Journal of Pediatrics March 2001;138:366-372.
      19. Molecular Psychiatry 2002;7:375-382.
      20. American Journal of Gastroenterolgy April 2004;598-605.
      21. Journal of Clinical Immunology November 2003;23:504-517.
      22. Neuroimmunology April 2006;173(1-2):126-34.
      23. Prog. Neuropsychopharmacol Biol. Psychiatry December 30 2006;30:1472-1477.
      24. Clinical Infectious Diseases September 1 2002;35(Suppl 1):S6-S16
      25. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 2004;70(11):6459-6465
      26. Journal of Medical Microbiology October 2005;54:987-991
      27. Archivos venezolanos de puericultura y pediatría 2006; Vol 69 (1): 19-25.
      28. Gastroenterology. 2005:128 (Suppl 2);Abstract-303

  1. Tester Moe says:

    Sure, real scientific. Blame one guy with an opinion for an epidemic that has nothing to do with him. Awesome.

    Did you know that we have no idea what is causing the increased incidence of atopic and autoimmune diseases? Is there any reason to believe vaccines are not the cause of this?

    Oh wait, now next time there is an outbreak of something blame me for raising a legitimate concern, because right or wrong we should be trying to preventatively vaccinate everyone against everything until we discover one generation that we wiped out most of the human race because oops! One of these had an unintended side effect we couldn’t predict and we we had no caution in recommending ridiculous preventative measures.

    My point is not that we should not vaccinate, but rather that we should vaccinate people only against diseases that are actually a threat to their life or health.

    Not against the ‘flu’ and stupid shit like that that few die from. There ARE risks associated with vaccinating, and there is no way to prove vaccines are safe BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT.

    But in some cases, like of course if I go to a region of the world where I could die from a serious disease, I want to get vaccinated against that. But it should be done in moderation, not needlessly!

    Vacine proponents and opponents are taking things to extremes. Vaccines are useful. BUT NOT THAT USEFUL. On this site I saw a list of diseases and deaths from those diseases that vaccines prevented. The list was about 20 items long.

    I AGREE it’s a good idea to vaccinate for those. BUT THOSE 20 ARE THE ONLY GOOD EXAMPLES. THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF OTHER BS USELESS VACCINES OUT THERE BEING HEAVILY ADVERTISED WHERE THE RISKS DON”T OUTWEIGH THE REWARDS.

    Some examples are the seasonal flu vaccines, cervical cancer vaccines they say all women should get (so frigging dangerous by the way – let’s take a gamble with wiping out the human race why don’t we), etc, etc.

    • Art Tricque says:

      “Did you know that we have no idea what is causing the increased incidence of atopic and autoimmune diseases? Is there any reason to believe vaccines are not the cause of this?”

      This is not how logic works. You cannot just assert or allege something. To win your argument, you must provide the evidence proving that vaccines cause autoimmune diseases. If you cannot, you have lost, and are simply spouting irrational nonsense.

      “There ARE risks associated with vaccinating, and there is no way to prove vaccines are safe BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT.”

      Another logic failure. It is logically impossible to prove anything has a risk of zero.

      “THERE ARE HUNDREDS OF OTHER BS USELESS VACCINES OUT THERE BEING HEAVILY ADVERTISED WHERE THE RISKS DON”T OUTWEIGH THE REWARDS.” No, I count only about two dozen illnesses against which there are vaccines, per Wikipedia.

      “Some examples are the seasonal flu vaccines, cervical cancer vaccines they say all women should get (so frigging dangerous by the way – let’s take a gamble with wiping out the human race why don’t we), etc, etc.”

      There is no evidence that cervical cancer or flu vaccines are a risk for wiping out the human race; you certainly provide none. This is, again, irrational nonsense.

    • Art Tricque says:

      Not a very convincing argument. The first point requires no evidence. For the logic fail given as the second point, see the Evidence of absence article at Wikipedia. I provided a link to evidence for the third point. No evidence can be provided for the fourth and final point, as there is none.

  2. veebers says:

    We do know that no childhood vaccines have gone through double blind trials as it is deemed unethical. We do know that
    1) autism was unknown in Amish communities and the only ones who have developed autism are vaccinated members of that community.
    2) We know that loading a child with 9 vaccines compounds is too much for an immature immune system. This is particularly questionable when a child is highly unlikely ever to be exposed to that disease – eg polio – an ineffective vaccine – pertussis an ineffective vaccine even according to James Cherry MD who sits on the VAERS community. Equally diphtheria is curable by antibiotics. Scarlet fever was a huge killer yet waned by itself and is now curable by anti biotic. We now vaccinate against chicken pox which is generally a very mild disease – a few days of itching and scratching.

    Children’s diseases strengthen the healthy child. We should not be scared of it. I expect bad eating and MacDonalds kill way more people than measles or any of the vaccinable disease together. I am not anti vaccine per se; I just think the whole debate is approached so emoytionally – the fact is there is no research done. Pharma is a self regulating industry and universities no longer have the money to carry out independent research, so we can all hurl iunsults and pseudo science at one another but the point is YOU DO NOT KNOW. However, I would agree with tester Moe about HPV – if you wear a condom you can avoid genital warts – which is what the vaccine is actually for – as well as herpes, Aids, hep BC DF, chlamydia etc and the worst side effect ? maybe an itch from nonoxyl 9 and decreased penile sensitivity. No death, no brain damage. And it is cheap.

    But instead we are shooting our pre sexual girls with stuff they really do not need with some very dangerous side effects. This is immoral, inmho

    • Art Tricque says:

      Veebers’ comments are a veritable Gish Gallop of anti-vaccination tropes; yes, Veebers, when you present such “arguments”, you are anti-vaccine.

      I can only find one true and relevant statement: the first sentence. That’s it. If Veebers wishes to pursue the other arguments, I invite him/her to provide links to evidence from credible, medical sources.

    • nic says:

      veebers,

      you state without any evidence that:

      “We do know that no childhood vaccines have gone through double blind trials as it is deemed unethical”…

      This is demonstrably false: for example, Prevnar 13 is a regular sceduled childhood vaccine in Canada and it has a multitude of randomized controlled trials to support its safety and effectiveness. Dont just trust me, look it up here:

      http://webprod5.hc-sc.gc.ca/dpd-bdpp/newSearch-nouvelleRecherche.do?lang=eng …..punch in prevnar 13 in product name,search then and click on the monograph pdf…

      Also, you imply that vaccines cause autism because only vaccinated Amish kids devellop autism – a common myth among anti-vaccination folks. This myth has been promoted by discredited reporter Dan Olmsted, is based on incomplete anecdotes and disproven by the following studies:

      Wenger OK, McManus MD, Bower JR, Langkamp DL, Underimmunization in Ohio’s Amish: parental fears are a greater obstacle than access to care.,Pediatrics. 2011 Jul;128(1):79-85

      and

      Strauss KA, Puffenberger EG, etl al., Recessive symptomatic focal epilepsy and mutant contactin-associated protein-like 2., N Engl J Med. 2006 Mar 30;354(13):1370-7

      Or, if you like your reading in actual english, go here for a truthful report:
      http://combatingautismfromwithin.blogspot.ca/2008/01/guess-what-amish-vaccinate.html

      For the rest of you claims, like Art Tricque said, have been disproven either on this website or at science based medecine.

  3. Charlene says:

    Michael, did you read the entire article? Have you seen the American Human Health Services Vaccine Injury Compensation website? The “vaccine court” has awarded over two Billion dollars in compensation to families that proved their child was injured by vaccines. The MMR vaccination is too much for some children and some develop encephalitis and/or brain damage that is believed to cause autism, asthma, allergies and adhd. Dr Wakefield made this connection and suggested giving single virus vaccinations instead of risky triple mmr. UK revoked that option and forced parents to choose mmr or no vaccination. So who is the criminal here? I suggest you do more research.

    • Art Tricque says:

      Charlene, your arguments do not stand up to scrutiny to those of us who have, in fact, looked at the scientific research in its entirety. Vaccines are not risk free; this is why the vaccine compensation system exists, as well as to make it easier for those who are injured to seek redress (for example, they do not have to go to court). However, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks, and are the risks are of similar orders of magnitude to the risks of the illness itself. As well, administering multiple single vaccines is not safer than one polyvalent vaccine.

      It is not true that the risks from vaccines are thought to cause autism, ADHD, etc., and any connection that Wakefield made was fraudulent and the “research” has been expunged. He has proven nothing, and been struck off the medical register in the UK. I am not sure how much clearer it can be that he and his “research” are null and void. Persisting in quoting it at this stage, frankly, is illogical, bordering on delusional…and like Wakefield, “criminal”.

      • Anna S. says:

        Perhaps you are not aware of the following report by Center of Disease Control, a government agency in the U.S.A. To quote its Dr. Thomas Verstraeten who studied effects of mercury in vaccines on babies in 1999:

        “The relative risk of developing a neurologic development disorder was 1.8… Within this group we also found an elevated risk for the following disorders: autism…non-organic sleep disorders…speech disorders.”

        My friend from university years has a son. He was perfectly healthy when they brought him in for his MMR vaccine. He had a fever and cried quite a bit afterward. When they brought him in for his second shot, he went into seizures right in the doctor’s office. He subsequently developed encephalitis and cried non stop for 3 days. He stopped speaking, would not make eye contact and was later diagnosed with autism. His parents will have to take care of him for the rest of his life. I can’t begin to describe how crushing this was for them. They know it was the vaccine, and in fact it was listed on the fact sheet by Merck as potential adverse effects (seizures, fever, encephalitis). What was that benefit again?

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