Vaccine Scares: Mistakes, Fraud, and Media Scaremongering

January 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm (Anti-Vaccination, Media) (, , , , , , , , , , )

The BMJ has published a strongly-worded editorial on Andrew Wakefield and his claims regarding the MMR vaccine. I was a little surprised to see that the headline ran “Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent“. The use of this particular ‘f-word’ is quite rare in articles published in England, perhaps due to the nature of libel law in this country.

The BMJ’s editorial is not yet being widely reported by the UK’s mainstream media (see here, and here). It could be the case that they have so far been reticent to report on the story due to fears of legal repercussions. Or perhaps they are simply too embarrassed to report the allegations, given their own behaviour during the MMR Hoax.

Journalist Brian Deer’s accompanying article, How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed, includes a useful summary. One point is particularly noteworthy, as it echoes a previous vaccine scare:

Despite the paper claiming that all 12 children were “previously normal,” five had documented pre-existing developmental concerns

This harks back to the pertussis vaccine scare of the late 1970s / early 1980s that began with a paper written by Dr John Wilson.

Deer has himself written about the pertussis vaccine scare, and on his website relates the tale of how a single, fatally flawed paper formed the basis of a vaccine scare that was seized upon by the mainstream media. His account includes this:

Surprisingly, some of the children on whom Wilson reported suffered their first neurological symptoms before their DTP jabs. But the most striking feature of the series that he presented concerned the identical twins. Both were diagnosed with an inherited condition called Seitelberger’s disease. And although their cases helped to trigger one of the century’s great health panics, neither child ever had a whooping cough jab.

The pertussis vaccine scare almost seems to be a template for vaccine scares. A single paper, which misreported vital features of the cases studied, was pounced upon by the mainstream media and developed into a major scare story. In these elements at least, the MMR hoax followed the example of the pertussis scare.

Wilson eventually admitted that, of his 36 original cases: there was no link between the vaccine and brain damage in eight; and a reasonable alternative cause in fifteen. Wilson stood by his original report in just twelve of the thirty six cases. Brian Deer reports that:

Of these remaining 12, only three were cases where there was no alternative explanation and on which information was reliable. Even those three could not be shown as having been injured by DTP.

Something else these vaccine scares have in common is that there were serious consequences. In fact, I personally am more interested in the consequences of the scares than in the motivations of the individuals involved or whether the research was fraudulent or just flawed.


In the case of the pertussis vaccine scare, here is what happened: “…immunisation coverage [dropped] to 30% in 1975 resulting in major epidemics in 1977/79 and 1981/83. As a result, there were more than 200,000 extra notifications and 100 deaths in 1970s and 1980s.” (See also this graph.)

You can see from this table that there were outbreaks of pertussis in 1978 and 1982 – in these two years alone, there were 130,000 notifications of pertussis and 26 deaths.

The consequences of the MMR hoax were not so severe as those of the pertussis scare, as vaccine coverage did not drop to such dangerously low levels. There were still unnecessary deaths though, in 2006 and 2008. (HPA) These were the first deaths from acute measles in England and Wales since 1992.


Elements of this blogpost were first published in my History of anti-vaccine campaigns.

Some of the bloggers at have reported on the BMJ articles and covered the subsequent fall-out, among them Left Brain/Right Brain and Action for Autism.

At least one blog has written (rather bluntly) about the reaction from the anti-vaccine community: tacit agreement.

Edited to add: link to the Telegraph coverage of the BMJ’s articles.


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