DBTG who… refuses the MMR jab for their kids

Ok, look.  I realise that sticking your oar in when it comes to how people choose to bring up their kids is pretty touchy.  In case you don’t know what I mean, try it out for yourself sometime.  If you ever see a mother feeding her child from a bottle/jar, walk up to her and explain that she should be breastfeeding, in your esteemed opinion.  Then, you get to find out conclusively if you can outrun an angry woman pushing a buggy.  Good luck with that, because it is generally a prickish thing to do.  Basically, it is none of your business.

But, then again, rules are made to be broken.  After the recent news that there is the beginning of a measles epidemic in Wales and people are queuing round the block to get the MMR jab, I felt the need to voice an opinion (if you haven’t heard about this story, look it up.  I can’t be bothered to post links when you could just as easily find it yourself).  Specifically, I (briefly) thought that anyone stupid enough to refuse the vaccination in the first place shouldn’t get the opportunity to change their mind once the disease that they weren’t protected against actually broke out.  I have tempered this Mail-esque reactionary viewpoint when I realised that as a rule, children shouldn’t be punished for the rabid idiocy displayed by their sleep-deprived parents, and maybe I don’t want to be even indirectly responsible for wishing millions of kids dead. 

Would you like some background?  The MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine is given to kids at around the age of one year old in order to immunise said kids against said diseases.  It is incredibly effective, although some people need a second dose a few years after.  It was also the subject of a study by a man called Andrew Wakefield, who claimed that the MMR jab could trigger autism in children.  The story exploded, particularly in the tabloid press, and something like 20% of parents refused to allow their kids to receive the vaccination as a result over the next 10 years.  That isn’t an altogether surprising reaction, but then again neither is the fact that cases of measles in the UK grew by 2400% over the same period.

The problem was that the parents, journalists, and arguably more damningly, the people who first published Wakefield’s report didn’t actually appear to have read it before passing judgement.  The headline seemed to be sufficient proof for most people.  In actual fact, Wakefield’s conclusion was based on the fact that the parents of 8 autistic children said they had a feeling the MMR was responsible for their child’s condition.  That’s it.  No in depth studies, just the opinions of a small number of amateur (albeit dedicated) behavioural observers.  As any statistician will tell you: correlation is not (necessarily) the same as causation, which in layman’s terms means that it might just be a coincidence.  Especially when you consider that the jab is given to children at an age when they first start to develop noticeable behavioural characteristics and simple vocal communication skills, things which could be lacking in autistic children.  Frankly, you may as well argue that increased use of the word “July” in conversation makes the weather hotter (in the northern hemisphere).  It doesn’t, by the way.

Anyway, the Lancet (the medical journal in which Wakefield’s paper was first published) retracted the paper.  The General Medical Council declared it to be “dishonest” and the British Medical Journal described it as “fraudulent”.  Andrew Wakefield was struck off the Medical Register, essentially meaning he could never work as a doctor again.  Despite these published views of medical professionals, parents continued to put their faith in such respected and (un)referenced sources as facebook groups and mumsnet forum posts.  The result is that incidences of these contagious and dangerous diseases has been growing, and has just reached a point where the numbers are suddenly a concern.

By the way, I understand the reasoning of the parents who refused the jab.  The only problem is that it is terribly flawed.  First off, who wants their child to be autistic?  No one, I’m sure, and fair enough.  It may not be the single worst thing ever, but you wouldn’t wish it on anyone.  Secondly, what’s the point of getting immunised against measles anyway?  Why risk autism to protect your kid against a disease that has been declared eliminated in numerous countries since the development of the vaccine?  Ok, except that the reason it has been declared eliminated is that EVERYONE IS VACCINATED AGAINST IT.  If you don’t get vaccinated, you may still contract it. 

It is this skewed and erroneous understanding of risk that has brought us to this present situation, and in a way I suppose it is self-correcting.  Suddenly, measles is a thing again and people are getting their kids down to the doctors to be jabbed because now they realise that it didn’t go away, it was just waiting for you to drop your defences.  And now, the risk of measles is seen to outweigh the (zero) risk of associated autism.  As far as I know, no one has died as a result of this recent measles outbreak, but there were 942 cases in Swansea, of which 1 in 15 is likely to develop “severe complications”.  That’s 63 people whose lives are at risk, and I can only hope that none of them suffer any permanent problems.

Finally, a word on Andrew Wakefield’s motivations.  The fact that he decided to publish such an absurd, massively under-researched report, and then publicised the ever-loving shit out of it is often overlooked by the current media reports.  In fact, Wakefield had been paid £55,000 by a group of solicitors who were representing the parents quoted in his study.  In other words, these lawyers/parents were trying to sue the vaccine manufacturers over their belief that the jab caused autism in their kids, and they needed evidence to take to court.  So, they provided “evidence” to Wakefield, and effectively purchased a “professional” opinion to use in a legal context.  Wakefield was a perfect choice, as he was allegedly reported to have applied for patents on a rival vaccine.  It was very much in his interests to trash the MMR.  I will point out (lest I get sued) that the above information is taken from Wikipedia, and my speculation on the parties’ motivations is not necessarily what happened, it is merely one potential interpretation of the situation.  It is for you to decide whether it is true or not.  But bear in mind that the Lancet, BMJ and GMC all hold a similarly dim view of the situation…

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