The Manchester Evening News reports on a mother who has changed her opinion on the MMR vaccine, after her daughter was admitted to hospital with measles.
“I sat in the dark watching Lola-Mae struggling to catch her breath and no one else was able to visit because we couldn’t risk spreading the infection. I felt so guilty and scared. I thought a lot about the MMR jab over the last few years.
“But Lola-Mae was born prematurely and her brother had a lot of bowel problems – I couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for putting my daughter through that too.
“But now I’ve seen what measles is like, I would advise all parents to get the MMR jab.”
Sadly, while the risks of measles are well known, it may take such narratives and experiences of parents to change views on the risk/benefit balance of MMR vaccine. It would be preferable that society could rationally debate these risks without children having to suffer the consequences of measles infection, but unfortunately we are lumbered with the media we have, and narratives are a powerful form of evidence in the minds of parents making decisions about vaccination. It may be that the likely increase in such cases may affect public opinion, more than any attempts to explain the epidemiological studies and virological studies that undermine the MMR vaccine-autism hypothesis. Casiday1 outlined the importance of narratives and how they can influence decision making:
Epidemiological ï¬ndings can suggest whether or not there is a statistical association between events like MMR immunisation and the occurrence of autism. But these ï¬ndings in and of themselves lack the rich meaning offered by the narrative accounts found in parentsâ€™ descriptions of their children changing and in the media. Some proponents of the MMR vaccine have begun to incorporate powerful narratives into their arguments. For instance, one GP described his experience overcoming feelings of guilt as the father of an autistic boy (Fitzpatrick, 2004) and newspapers have presented narrative accounts of measles-infected children (McDonald & Ungoed Thomas, 2004). Many parents were indeed persuaded by these narratives. It is important to recognise the importance and the value of narrative, because simply dismissing parentsâ€™ anecdotal accounts of changes they observed in their children has resulted in many parents feeling that important facts had been overlooked or, even worse, covered up by the medical establishment.
The last sentence there brings up a problem that is surely insurmountable. If you accept the power of narrative stories about MMR vaccine and autism, that should not blind you to the fact that no solid science backs up the hypothesis that autism was caused by MMR vaccine. Indeed, media reporting and other narratives may have had a part in creating the belief of some parents that changes in their children were caused by MMR vaccine. It isn’t “dismissing parentsâ€™ anecdotal accounts of changes they observed in their children” that has led to accusations of cover-ups, but dismissal of the view that MMR vaccine has caused autism. It is far from clear how one can avoid such accusations, without accepting the argument that MMR vaccine causes autism.
Indeed, credulous acceptance of “MMR vaccine causes autism” narratives are, in part, what led Wakefield down his blind alley and to the whole controversy in the first place.
1. Casiday RE. Children’s health and the social theory of risk: Insights from the British measles, mumps and rubella (MMR)next term controversy. Social Science & Medicine 2007; 65(5):1059-1070