When did the heat move from Wakefeld and the media, to parents?
Recently I saw a tweet asking “what kind of C*** stops their child having the MMR anyway?” I have to say, this kind of switch in dialogue around where blame lies sets my teeth on edge. I’m really not keen on blaming the victims of anti-vaccination propaganda for the state of play in Public Health.
Ask any parent of a neurotypical child and they’ll tell you sometimes they struggle to have enough time to go to the toilet in peace. So when I see someone decrying parents’ fears over vaccinations, I get pretty angry. As a parent of two, I know only too well how many parents spend their time agonising constantly about their kids. They discuss vaccinations in parent forums, at work, in the school playground. They care and they worry.
At the height of the scandal, in 2001, Cherie and Tony Blair were widely criticised for asserting MMR was safe whilst at the same time avoiding confirming their infant son Leo, had been vaccinated. This also is nonsensical. My medical records, your medical records and Leo Blair’s medical records are no one else’s damn business. Cherie later confirmed, in her autobiography ‘Speaking for myself’, in 2008, that he was vaccinated, but many children have health reasons that preclude them from immunisation.
Given we’re now reaping what Wakefield first sowed in 1997 – the number of measles cases in England has risen six-fold since 2014 according to the Independent in December 2019 – it’s time to really think about health information and how it’s disseminated.
Blaming the media
Much light is made of the Daily Mail’s list of what will kill or cure you of Cancer but unfortunately I’m going to defend those who consume science media. The general audience for it. A tiny bit. A few years ago, not long before I fell pregnant, I heard about new research stating that women who drink one glass of wine when pregnant could, instead of damaging their baby, end up with a more intelligent child. The radio report ended with a confirmation that Department of Health advice to avoid all alcohol during pregnancy remains unchanged.
Health advice, from the point of view of the layman, seems to just keep changing (changing, note; not developing). It was the same when I was born in the mid-80s – advice on whether to lay your child on her front or back when sleeping had just changed. My mum sleeps on her front, I sleep on my side. “Scientists can’t make their bloody minds up!” comes the cry. You can hardly blame sleep-deprived parents of one year olds for being reticent.
So what was an expectant mother – or a new parent of a 12 month old, a month away from getting the MMR, in 1998-2001 to think? Should I give my precious child the MMR injection and ‘risk’ him developing Autism or should I take the risk he’ll develop measles? An illness most people have never seen the full effects of? Herd immunity has been so high, historically, most people had never met or remembered someone with a bad case of measles, mumps or rubella. “It’s unlikely just this one kid is going to have that much of an effect on herd immunity.” Or so they think.
What these illnesses can do
What many parents don’t realise is that measles is highly infectious and can lead to blindness and death. Most people, since the measles vaccination was introduced in the UK in 1968 (63 in the US) haven’t seen a child really suffer with the illness as herd immunity quickly strengthened.
Whooping cough is another deadly illness – children too young to be vaccinated (under 13 months old) are suffering from the reduction in herd immunity.
As Sarah Ditum has written previously in the Guardian “with measles cases [previously] so low, it was easy to forget what the vaccines were protecting us from.. the illnesses sounded almost picturesque – vintage diseases from the 50s. It was as difficult to imagine as the taste of Spam.”
The allure of the anti-vax argument
Anti-vaccination arguments are powerful and emotive . Powerful and emotive is, to me, just another way of saying ‘damn convincing’. The trouble with Scientists, despite their perceived air of authority, is that they just don’t talk the same language anti-vaxxers do. People opposed to vaccinations come out with things that seem plausible and obvious to the ill-educated on the subject of vaccinations – “a child can’t cope with three vaccines at once!”
I don’t blame parents for being frightened- especially those with little to no real knowledge of how vaccines work or are developed and tested. They simply don’t have time to do all the research and when your daily newspaper, talking to you in language written for you, tells you there’s a debate and a controversy to hear about vaccines I think you could be forgiven for making what seems a logical risk-benefit analysis to make. Risk measles – that few people suffer from (they thought) or risk a developmental disability that will affect my child’s, and my life forever. Seemingly no contest.
The fact is, Autism is found in every culture and every country in the world and chrildren are diagnosed with autism whether they’ve been given a vaccination or not. MMR is given at 13 months old but can now be diagnosed as early as 6 months. Most parents notice some kind of developmental delay before their child reaches 12 months of age, just before the MMR is given.
Health information does change and develop and there is, rightly or wrongly, suspicion around Big Pharma and a perceived authoritarian government.
Science communication and education
I think if health officials and communicators really want to get their point across about vaccines they have to do the following (and it involves a lot of work!)
– Attend meetings of anti-vaxxers and find out what their actual arguments are. Some are misunderstandings, some are twisted facts. They are many and they are fickle.
– Actually learn how vaccines are made and developed. Find out about their history – it’s more complicated and involved than you may first imagine
– Learn to speak the language of emotion and rhetoric – stories are powerful but numbers are not.
– Rebut specific claims rather than boldly asserting vaccines are safe. Realise some vaccines have been improved and ingredients removed (not because of the danger – because of public perceptions surrounding safety)
– Find really good, hard hitting evidence that’s easy to demonstrate where specific claims are incorrect
– Work to increase public understanding of science.
Conspiracy theories are attractive and grieving parents who haven’t yet come to terms with their child’s differences – differences they never anticipated – will grab on to anything to take away the blame. It’s cathartic to suggest an outside agent – the government – pharmaceutical companies – are to blame.
To put this into context, these are the same people who told the National Autistic Society in May 2012 that 74% of people caring for someone with ASD get no support and only 28% say they receive good info where to go for support and help. The 72% who get no help and information are often the ones sucked in to alternative medicines that are often both harmful and expensive. They ultimately end up with an ill, frightened and traumatized child.
If you can, tell just one parent about the vaccine scare and the truth behind it- tell them vaccines are rigorously tested and if they want to really know about the subject they should check the veracity of their source. The websites about vaccines seem so plausible and are pseudoscientific enough to give them a real air of credibility. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.