If you’re looking for proof that common sense eventually triumphs over scaremongering, long queues at hospitals across South Wales last week provide it. Parents waited for hours to have their children inoculated against measles, mumps, and rubella. And they waited because measles, mumps and rubella aren’t a necessary part of childhood, like a grazed knee. They’re dangerous diseases: measles can cause brain damage, deafness and death.
It’s fifteen years since Andrew Wakefield published his discredited paper in The Lancet (suggesting a link between autism and the MMR jab), and the subsequent media storm, which proved that many journalists barely had a science qualification between them.
Vaccination rates collapsed in parts of the country, including South Wales, where a major measles outbreak has now occurred. Health officials have suggested a causal link between a local paper campaign in the late 90s, and the fall-off in vaccinations which has allowed the current spate of measles to take hold. Andrew Wakefield, meanwhile, moved to Texas and was last seen trying to flog a reality TV show about autism.
The autism issue has been fraught with difficulty, precisely because parents of autistic children are having a tough enough time without being dismissed as gullible fools by an increasingly impatient scientific community. But plenty of autistic campaigners feel equally irate. Ari Ne’eman (the first person with an autistic spectrum disorder to sit on the National Council on Disability in America) points out that ‘The idea of the poor, pitiful disabled person that we need to save… belongs on the ash heap of history’.
Undeniably, there are still parents who refuse to vaccinate their children because they don’t believe in the benefits of vaccination, but they do fear what they perceive to be unknown risks. The trouble is that measles comes with well-known risks, but these were simply forgotten by too many of us when everyone was inoculated. Measles seemed to be nothing worse than a mild childhood illness from which everyone recovered in a week. Then, in 2006, a 13-year old boy became the first person to die of measles in Britain for over a decade.
I spent a while researching the consequences of measles for a novel. I wanted to look at how a character might be scarred — literally and metaphorically — by the choices her parents made, as they tried to do the right thing but were bombarded with conflicting information. And I wanted to consider the impact her illness would have on her parents: on the guilt and blame which would follow what they eventually felt was the wrong decision.
The South Wales case surely proves that most of the media have become vastly more responsible when they write about medical issues. Hopefully, the days of scare-tactic headlines are behind us. It should mean parents can make an informed choice, rather than a frightened one.