How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?

By AnthonyLast updated: Sunday, July 15, 2007 • Save & Share2 Comments

Last week’s MMR vaccine scare, started by The Observer has now being going for seven days. So how far did it go? This is not an exhaustive trawl through all the press, but let’s look at three examples of later coverage. Sadly, not all are newspapers.

1. The Independent

The Independent has a poor track record on vaccine safety. In 2004, when the first news of Wakefield’s conflict of interest appeared, they suggested a government conspiracy. “Are we wrong to detect the distant whirr of the same spin spin machine that so recently set about destroying the reputations of David Kelly, Andrew Gilligan and others”?” In an emotive and science-free news story, they build-up Wakefield’s listening heroism, giving lots of space to the pressure group JABS. They make use of The Observer’s figure of 1 in 58 children having autism.

The number of autistic children is far higher than previously thought, it emerged last week. One child in 58 may have a related condition, believe researchers at Cambridge University. The previously accepted figure was one in 100.

Two days prior to the publication of The Independent’s story Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, made the following comments in a press release.

inappropriate and premature media coverage of this on-going work led to further claims in the press of a substantial rise in autism.

“In the absence of final figures from our prevalence study, the best estimate to date of the prevalence of autism is the 1 per cent figure published in the Lancet in 2006.

“It is unfortunate that this press coverage did not wait until the study was complete and had been through peer review, since this is considered good practice in science and health -journalism. It is doubly unfortunate that this alarmist media coverage reignited the debate over the now discredited link between the MMR vaccination and autism. Our research did not look at MMR so it was irrelevant to raise this.

Sadly The Independent did not read the press release or seek to contact Baron-Cohen.

2. Mail On Sunday

Peter Hitchens’ main headline in his column is: “At last they admit it, this jab can harm your child“. Hitchens’ does not make use of the Autism Research Centre’s 1 in 58 figure, instead focusing on comments by Vivienne Parry, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, in The Observer’s article about Wakefield. She said:

‘There’s a risk with all vaccines. It’s a very small risk. No one has ever said that the MMR vaccine, or any vaccine, is completely without side-effects. But as a society we have to decide whether the benefits outweight the risks. If we had measles, it would kill lots of children. If you have a vaccine, it will damage some children, but a very small number.’

Surprisingly, while jumping on this quote for his headline and suggesting the statement was a change to the “wooded headed assertions by the medical establishment that the MMR jab is proven to be completely safe”, Hitchens’ fails to spot that the Vivienne Parry quote undermines his position with the words “No one has ever said that the MMR vaccine, or any vaccine, is completely without side-effects.”

Hitchens article is an example of the worst form of scientifically ignorant clap-trap that has been littering newspapers since Wakefield’s flawed, refuted and retracted paper was published. It should be used as a case study in how to write such articles.

  1. It misuses Vivienne Parry’s comments, suggesting they are the first admission that MMR vaccine can cause harm. When real evidence of harm associated with MMR vaccine has been found, the regulatory bodies have not attempted to hide it. In August 2001, the Committee on Safety of Medicines drew attention to the risk of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura in their journal “Current Problems in Pharmacovigilance”. Hardly evidence of an establishment cover-up.
  2. It supplies us with an anecdotal story, without any attempt to review the large body of scientific evidence refuting the association of MMR vaccine with autism.
  3. It suggests that Wakefield’s alleged malpractice was to raise the possibility that MMR vaccine was not safe. In fact, the GMC have made it clear they will not be considering the safety of MMR vaccine, and will be solely concerned with the ethics of the trial, the undeclared financial conflicts, and abuse of trust. To quote the GMC: “The GMC does not regard its remit as extending to arbitrating between competing scientific theories generated in the course of medical research”.

3. The BMJ

Let’s start by saying there is a strong case for a medical journal’s news articles making their readership aware of media reporting of MMR scare stories. Doctors may well see parents in the next few weeks who have read the two articles above.

In an article entitled GMC hearing against Wakefield and colleagues opens, The Observers’ story is quoted.

Researchers from Cambridge University’s autism research centre will conclude in an as yet unpublished study that autistic spectrum disorders are almost twice as common among British schoolchildren as current estimates indicate. The lead researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, said that this study, which examined some 12 000 primary school children in Cambridgeshire, will conclude that one in 58 children has such a disorder.

As already mentioned, Simon Baron-Cohen is saying no such thing. The BMJ may not have had time before they went to press to incorporate Baron-Cohen’s press release, but you’d think they would ring him up given the leaked nature of the report.

One might also ask why the study is discussed in the context of the safety of MMR vaccine, since the study is not looking at the issue of an association with MMR vaccine – only autism prevalence. The piece is hardly enlightening for any General Practitioner confronted with The Observer’s article.

Filed in Media, MMR

2 Responses to “How virulent were The Observer’s MMR articles?”

Comment from PJ
Time 16/7/2007 at 6:30 pm

Well, you wouldn’t expect any better of Hitchens, presumably Melanie Phillips has picked up on this by now.

This:

http://observer.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,2126631,00.html

from the Observer readers’ editor is worryingly complacent, particularly given comments by “DrFJScott July 16, 2007 11:31 AM” on that page, or on Ben Goldacre’s blog:

http://www.badscience.net/?p=445

saying:

“The Cambridge researchers…are equally surprised that the Observer fabricated comments attributed to their team. They do not
believe there is any link between rising prevalence and the MMR, or chemical toxins.”

“I should quite clearly and firmly point out that I was never contacted by and had no communication whatsoever with the reporter who wrote the infamous Observer article…What appeared in the article was a flagrant misrepresentation of my opinions…It is outrageous that the article states that I link rising prevalence figures to use of the MMR. I have never held this opinion. I do not think the MMR jab ‘might be partly to blame’…The ‘small number’ was misrepresented by being linked inappropriately and inaccurately with ‘rise in prevalence’, leading readers to arguably infer that it is in fact NOT a small number!”

given that the article states explicitly:

“A study, as yet unpublished, shows that as many as one in 58 children may have some form of the condition…Two of the academics, leaders in their field, privately believe that the surprisingly high figure may be linked to the use of the controversial MMR vaccine…two of the authors believe that the MMR jab, which babies receive at 12 to 15 months, might be partly to blame. Dr Fiona Scott and Dr Carol Stott both say it could be a factor in small numbers of children.”

Comment from Anthony
Time 16/7/2007 at 8:36 pm

Yes, I saw Prichard’s response. Really disappointing.