By Anne Dachel
Anyone who's done a Google news search on vaccines/autism over the last couple of weeks can't help but notice the stories about the huge push by British health officials for the MMR vaccine. Dozens of reports are all saying the same thing: Vaccination rates have fallen off so much in Britain that the public is being warned of an approaching measles epidemic. The only way to prevent this from happening is to have a major uptake in MMR vaccinations.
The tone of the articles makes it clear to the British people that measles is life-threatening and the possibility of a massive outbreak is very real. The statistics are scary. The Guardian reported, "The number of cases of measles is on the rise across the country. There were 1,726 confirmed cases in England and Wales in 2006 and 2007 - more than in the previous 10 years put together, when there were 1,621 cases."
The press is giving parents plenty of reasons to be worried. Sources repeatedly said, "Estimates by the Department of Health suggest a measles epidemic in Britain could affect between 30,000 and 100,000 children and young people." Another paper reported, "The DoH says that around 10% of measles cases require hospital admission and one in 5,000 are fatal."
The Worcester News ran the piece, Anti-MMR parents put others at risk, in which we heard only the government's contention that "there is no scientific evidence to justify claims of a risk of autism. No link has been found and such studies have been debunked." A local health official complained, "Parents who do not get their children immunised risk the health of their own children and other children."
One thing is clear: this is the fault of parents not vaccinating. The Mail ran a story about anti-MMR mothers who are putting everyone in danger (HERE). Jonathan Myerson wrote, "The arrogance is stunning, the stupidity is off the scale. But give the mother of a newborn something to fight against and logic is history." This was in reference to the research by Dr. Andrew Wakefield linking the MMR and autism. Myerson completely dismissed Wakefield's findings and blamed the press in Britain for falsely convincing trusting mothers that there was danger in the MMR.
In the current stories about the need for the MMR, reporters generally spoke in the past tense when it came to the link to autism. Most gave only one or two sentences-- "The measles return and current fears for an epidemic are the result of reduced MMR uptake following the claims the vaccine is linked to autism. But numerous studies have failed to find such a link and we are completely confident that MMR is safe."
The public also heard a lot from chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson who has taken the lead in sounding an alarm over all the unvaccinated kids at risk for measles urging doctors to "help cut the risk of a measles epidemic" by immunizing.
Personally, as an American, I see the autism-vaccine controversy in a different light and I have a number of questions for the British press.
Why is the media creating this hysteria over a possible measles epidemic when it isn't happening now?
The chart on England mortality rate from measles 1838-1978 (HERE) clearly shows that measles deaths were dramatically disappearing years before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1968. One has to wonder just how much of an impact the vaccine actually had.
In the countless stories in the UK about measles, why don't we hear anything from the non-vaccinating parents as to why they're not complying? Why doesn't the press there report this in a fair and balanced manner? Blaming parents but not investigating their opinion is tantamount to publishing government propaganda.
Another obvious question comes to mind: Since there is such concern over the MMR causing autism and bowel disease, why not provided a single vaccine just for the measles? It would seem a simple way to alleviate the concern over the combined live virus vaccine. Health officials however remain firm that this is a "drive for the MMR jab."
The Guardian had an editorial Aug. 12 blaming this health crisis on Wakefield's original work on the MMR back in 1998. Journalist Peter Wilby wrote, "The research that led to suggestions of an MMR link with autism came from Dr Andrew Wakefield and 11 colleagues at St George's Hospital, London. It was later discredited. He and two others are now charged with serious professional misconduct before the General Medical Council."
Gone are the days in Britain when Dr Peter Fletcher, former Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Health, was in the Daily Mail Former science chief: 'MMR fears coming true' | Mail Online (HERE) saying that 'the refusal by governments to evaluate the [MMR] risks properly will make this one of the greatest scandals in medical history.' According to Fletcher's interview in 2006, science hasn't settled the question of vaccines and autism. Fletcher was quoted saying, 'Steady accumulation of evidence' from scientists around the world was showing that the MMR vaccine was causing brain damage in certain children. He furthermore made it clear why so many were in denial. 'There are very powerful people in positions of great authority in Britain and elsewhere who have staked their reputations and careers on the safety of MMR and they are willing to do almost anything to protect themselves.'
British coverage has reduced this to a debate only over the findings of Wakefield originally published in 1998 in the Lancet and they continue to talk about the claim that vaccines cause autism in the past tense as if there was no longer any debate. It's hard to believe that we're on the same planet when we see stories everyday in the American press about the very heated and ongoing autism controversy. We in the U.S. autism community may be outraged at the coverage at times, but it's there--on local and national news.
You'd think that the publicity over the Poling case or the comments by Dr. Bernadine Healy on CBS News would have caused at least a ripple in the British media, but they didn't. They were never covered in Britain.
Here in America, we've expanded beyond just the single thimerosal issue and we are looking at the whole vaccine schedule with cries of "too many, too soon." There's cause for concern here over the host of toxins commonly found in children's vaccines. These worries are never raised by the media in the UK.
This brings me back to Liam Donaldson. Donaldson has gotten a lot of media attention over the impending measles outbreak and I wondered what someone in his position was doing about the real epidemic of autism in Britain. I tried to research how he's combating autism and incredibly the overwhelming information available about Donaldson and autism consists of only of stories about Donaldson denying that the MMR causes autism. Donaldson seems to be putting all his efforts into this and accusing Andrew Wakefield of peddling 'poor science.'
It needs to be noted that the hysteria over measles in Britain is happening at the same time that Wakefield's up on charges before the General Medical Council. What an amazing coincidence for health officials. MMR rates have dropped off dramatically because of Wakefield's findings and tens of thousands of children in the UK might contract measles as a result. Could this be sending a strong message to the GMC to influence their decision? Children's very lives might depend on it.
Measles is the crisis of the moment in Brtiain, not autism, but last year it was announced that the official British autism rate was one in every 86 children. That stunning statistic wasn't cause for national alarm and serious inquiry into what was affecting children's health. While one in 86 was more than twice the number previously thought, Liam Donaldson didn't seem worried. The press too had a casual attitude about the new rate and one headline simply stated, Autism--quite common. The BBC told us, "Part of the reason for the increase is likely to be improved diagnosis and greater awareness in schools of the problem."
Health authorities in Britain should have been in a panic over the fact that while one in every 86 children has autism, one in every 86 adults doesn't. This is a looming disaster for both the US and the UK The generation of disabled children represents a cost to taxpayers that we can't begin to imagine. Officials in both countries are in denial, but at least in the US, the public is hearing about the controversy over vaccines. The British people can see that damage that been done. Children with autism are on endless waiting lists and are making huge demands on the schools. It's only a matter of time before the ridiculous claims simply won't work. The children with autism and the upcoming class of young adults with autism in the UK and here will present a bill we simply can't afford to pay, but in Britain, it may not even make the papers.
I am sure of one thing. In both countries, health officials and members of the media who failed to do their jobs, who covered up the truth and turned their backs on our children won't be able to just walk away in denial. They will be held responsible. The evidence is everywhere, too obvious to ignore. I can't imagine that either group will have a shred of credibility left in the end.
Anne Dachel is Media Editor for Age of Autism.