MMR Scare – Will We Learn From It?

July 25, 2008 at 8:57 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Big Pharma, government, Media) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

Measles is endemic, Wakefield is up before the GMC and the media are walking away nonchalantly, pretending they were never involved. It appears that the MMR scaremongering has ground (or at least is slowly grinding) to a halt. Unfortunately, the damage has been done and measles is back [see bottom of page for more links]. I’ve written before about the media’s major role in this scare, the scapegoating of Andrew Wakefield (who should still be held to account for his part in the scare – scapegoat or not) and I’ve also written before about the dangerously wrong JABS organisation. Martin over at Lay Science has recently blogged about Anderberg, Chevalier and Wadsworth’s Anatomy of a Health Scare: Education, Income and the MMR Controversy in the UK. It’s worth checking his post out if you haven’t already done so – it’s also worth reading the study it is based on.

I’m wondering whether we will learn from the MMR scare, but I’m extremely pessimistic that we will.

I think part of the problem with the MMR scare was historical: Evil Big Pharma has long been distrusted – often with good reason (but has possibly been even more distrusted since The Constant Gardener was published), but there’s also the abuse that hypocritical homeopaths dish out to Big Pharma for playing the same games they do. There’s probably a connection between the MMR scare and the BSE / vCJD scare; a loss of trust in Government and perhaps in scientific advisers; people actually assuming that if the Government of the day says something the opposite is most likely true. This is something that was touched on by a representative for the IPPR in the recent Channel 4 documentary on the HPV vaccine – while most people still listen to their GPs, the Government advising the public on health can be counterproductive. BSE and vCJD are mentioned in Michael Fitzpatrick’s Spike-Online piece on MMR and in the Open University’s page on “The MMR vaccine: public health, private fears” [some interesting tables in that link] and there is a BMJ timeline of the BSE/vCJD news following the week that the news broke.

People still don’t trust the Government (probably with good reason most of the time – they are politicians, after all and shiftiness and prevarication are still highly-prized qualities in Westminster), some people still don’t trust scientific advisors, some erroneously associate all scientists with the still-reviled Big Pharma, the general public are still suckers for a scare story (or a miracle cure story come to that) and the press are still printing bullshit on a daily basis – whether it is about MMR, the Government or which celebrity allegedly did what with whom and why. I might be wrong, but my guess is the next scary bandwagon that comes along will be jumped on almost instantly by the Great British Public – and they will no doubt be encouraged to do so by the the press.

What can be done? Well, I guess the Medical Research Council will have a role to play. Perhaps they will do better in the next big media furore than they did in helping to manage BSE, GM and MMR. At the very least, they should not discourage scientists from, say, discussing and explaining the science to MPs. More happily, there is the prospect that science bloggers may be able to counter the misinformation and counterknowledge spread by the media during health scares (or before health scares begin in some cases). There is an article on HolfordWatch about science bloggers and the media.

See also here for more on the return on measles: JQH (and see Bad Science – BS – and Black Triangle – BT – for more on MMR, the media, Wakefield…); The Guardian covered the surge in measles infections, including a reference to a boy who became the first person in 14 years in the UK to die from the disease [in April last year]; The Independent also covered the rise in measles, somewhat hypocritically blaming Wakefield when (as you can see from the Black Triangle post) they wrote about “[detecting] the distant whirr of the same spin machine that so recently set about destroying the reputations of David Kelly, Andrew Gilligan and others” in 2004.


  1. dvnutrix said,

    I hope that we do or there was otherwise absolutely no point in going through all of this business with the MMR hoax. But then again, it is not as if we hadn’t had similar health alarms that proved groundless throughout history.

    The statistic that most surprised me was Prof Stanley reporting that 120 children in Lambeth’s measles outbreak had needed a spell in ICU in May/June – it is scandalous that that has not had wider coverage but, as you say, some newspapers might find it difficult to distance themselves from responsibility for that.

  2. coracle said,

    I think the real question is what are the lessons to be learned. What would have made a difference to the reception of the news? Certainly Blair’s decision not to confirm Leo’s vaccination was a problem. I sympathise with his right to privacy, but I do think it would have helped.

    I remember a post on Aetiology (Deck is stacked against "mythbusters") regarding recall about vaccination myths and facts. From the article: “Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.”

    This makes me wonder that if all the work on the science communication side of things was counter-productive and it reinforced the concept that there was a problem with the MMR vaccine.

    If this is an issue then the health promoters are stuck. To not do anything would be to risk conceding the argument, but to argue against it would reinforce the idea that there is a problem in the first place.

    One obvious lesson is for the media, they need to get their science right before they begin their campaigns.

  3. dvnutrix said,

    We need advice from communications people. One of my difficulties with the argument that we should frame something without repeating the myth is that if we avoid the terms that are in use then people can’t find a post via Google.

    Plus, if that were done in conversation, the vocabulary mis-match is likely to end up leaving one party feeling that they haven’t been heard because they haven’t heard their phrases back at them – which is one way that people know that they have been heard (according to most comms training – which is never that brilliant iirc).

  4. jdc325 said,

    Re the Aetiology link and this part of your comment, coracle: “This makes me wonder that if all the work on the science communication side of things was counter-productive and it reinforced the concept that there was a problem with the MMR vaccine.”; I had a look at the link you provided and it seems that:

    The article suggests that, rather than repeat them (as the CDC “true and false” pamphlet does, for example), one should just rephrase the statement, eliminating the false portion altogether so as to not reinforce it further (since repetition, even to debunk it, reaffirms the false statement). Ignoring it also makes things worse, as the story noted that other research “…found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true.”

    As you say, ignoring the problem makes it worse and repeating the myth in order to debunk it also has a negative effect (probably because of the effect described below by Ruth Mayo, I guess). It seems the only answer is to debunk the myths by rephrasing, as suggested by Tara Smith of the Aetiology blog. Instead of writing “The MMR vaccine is not linked to autism”, we need to find another way of phrasing it. Tricky. But there are plenty of smart people involved in communication of science – I would hope at least one would be savvy enough to find a way to do this.
    From the original article quoted by Aetiology:

    Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time. Mayo’s findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004.

    Thanks for the links and comments coracle, dvnutrix.

    PS – “One obvious lesson is for the media, they need to get their science right before they begin their campaigns.” I’m not optimistic about that one coracle. We can but hope that they are so embarrassed by their role in the MMR debacle that they will think twice before they plung us into another media-generated hoax. Unlikely as that scenario is.

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