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.