I am the father of two young children, one five, one nearly two. After some anxiety, my partner and I decided they should have the MMR vaccination. I believe that was the right choice, and that scientific evidence supports that view. But I can equally well understand why many, many parents do not trust MMR or government advice about it.
There have been many studies about possible links between MMR and autism. The vast majority found no link. These include studies in the Lancet (June 1999), the British Medical Journal (February 2001), and the Medical Research Council study of March 2000. The US has used MMR since 1982. For nearly 20 years no one suggested that autism had increased because of it. But I don't think worried parents are 'hysterical' or stupid.
Who can be sure about 'medical advice' after BSE, after revelations about big business influence over the government, and after drug companies denied AIDS drugs to the Third World? MMR has been manufactured at various times by SmithKlineBeecham, Merck and Aventis Pasteur. These names are synonymous with greed. A key study cited to defend MMR from Finland was largely financed by Aventis Pasteur.
The Scottish Executive set up an advisory group on MMR. It was revealed that four of its members had financial links with companies making the vaccine. Dozens of the members (37 in 2001) of the Committee for the Safety of Medicines have financial links with drugs firms. It is true that figures for autism are sharply on the rise. One study this year said one in every 166 children was affected. If it is accurate (it may not be) it would indicate an incredible rise from the 1988 figure of one in every 2,200 children.
Nobody really knows why autism is rising or by how much. It may be because of different diagnostic criteria or better diagnosis, or because of pesticides, pollution or increased social stress on families. So why did I have my children vaccinated? Refusing MMR eliminates any possible effect of the vaccine. But it is not a risk-free decision for your child or for society.
In Africa in the 1980s I saw children die from measles and others damaged for life. It will be appalling if measles, mumps or rubella sweeps through Britain again. Japan stopped using MMR in 1993 because of problems with a home-produced component not used elsewhere. In the next five years 79 children died from measles in Japan, while none died in Britain.
The compromise of calling for children to have three separate vaccinations rather than the single MMR jab is not as simple as it appears. Three vaccinations would inevitably mean some children not getting the full course of treatment.
For many busy parents, getting the time off and arranging appointments is difficult enough for one set of vaccinations-it would be near impossible for three. It would also mean children having repeat injections and more risk of adverse reaction.
In the 1970s the diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine was split. Coverage for whooping cough declined to 30 percent. Three major epidemics followed. Many children died as a result.
The present crisis reflects people's distrust of those that run society. It has been fuelled by the government's arrogance and Blair's refusal to say that his child had been vaccinated with MMR. People feel that there COULD be a link between MMR and autism or other conditions.
The government should make all the data available and launch a major study, untainted by financial links or drugs company pressure. It would have to involve independent experts and parents with justified fears. We should chuck profit out of medicine entirely. But the New Labour project of involving more private interests in everything runs precisely in the opposite direction to this course.