A new study in the Archives of Disease in Childhood has been published. Although the MMR vaccine-autism theory is already dead and buried, further evidence that no such link is likely is welcome. Given the changing attitudes towards MMR vaccine now, as we enter the tail end of what will be studied as an episode of major historical interest to those interested in health scares, I though it would be useful to examine how much space the media gave in the reporting of the new study to those who cling to the hypothesis that MMR vaccine is linked to autism. I examined BBC online, The Guardian, The Daily Express, The Daily Mail, The Daily Telegraph, and The Times. Today’s Guardian leader was excluded, as were all reader comments on news stories. The Independent appeared not to have run with the story, which is interesting given their past record. A simple word count of the article was undertaken, and then a word count taken of the amount of the article taken up by anti-MMR individuals or organisations. The results are shown in the graph below.
The Daily Mail’s high percentage should come as no surprise. They provide a platform to JABS, the UK’s major pressure group concerned with MMR vaccine, and the “vaccine expert” Richard Halverson (a supplier of single vaccines). It is gratifying to see that The Daily Express decided not to “balance” their article with anti-MMR vaccine material (or even a picture of Princess Diana). However, it is somewhat shocking to see that the BBC is continuing to go to the anti-MMR vaccine organisation JABS. Even worse, they provide a link, as they have done for years, to the JABS website. A link from a prestigious site such as the BBC provides valuable page ranking to JABS, as well as the immediate problem of potentially directing concerned parents to a website full of disinformation.
When JABS started the site was less like a standard anti-vaccine site, and some care was taken in stressing that the site was concerned with the safety of MMR vaccine, rather than all vaccines. Their aims and objectives continue to say “JABS as a self-help group neither recommends nor advises against vaccinations but we aim to promote understanding about immunisations and offer basic support to any parent whose child has a health problem after vaccination.”. This is now wearing thin.
As the MMR vaccine-autism hypothesis has fallen apart, so has the discipline. The site is now much more in line with other anti-vaccine sites. Their reading list consists of books advising on homeopathic vaccine clearing, non-vaccination, and even the discredited theory that Polio vaccine was behind the arrival of HIV. The JABS forum has become a rather desperate place. Accusations of covert funding or conspiracies are leveled at any suggestion that the link between MMR vaccine and autism is unproven. Four to five year-old newspaper articles from the peak of the MMR vaccine scare are posted as reassurance. The pity is that behind this lies some undoubtedly sad stories; far too many people have been led down the wrong path.
One of the legacies of the MMR vaccine debacle is that the UK now has a group of highly committed anti-vaccine activists, who have built up ties with some of the media in the UK. Journalists should be aware of exactly what they are now dealing with.