The UK news media have to share responsibility for what is happening in Swansea

The recent spate of measles cases in Swansea now looks set to become the biggest outbreak in the UK since the introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988.

The scale of the problem has led some to ask questions about the role the news media played in fostering the current public health crisis. I was able to contribute evidence based opinions about this (on BBC Radio Wales, and on Radio 4’s You and Yours) drawing on the excellent work carried out by JOMEC researchers Tammy Boyce, Justin Lewis, and Ian Hargreaves.

As I expressed on air, the evidence is clear and the UK news media have to share responsibility for what is happening in Swansea. They collectively dropped the ball over reporting the now discredited claims which linked the Measles Mumps and Rubella “triple vaccine” to autism in young children.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, with very few exceptions, they gave far too much prominence to claims from controversial scientist Andrew Wakefield based on very thin evidence. It has since emerged that Wakefield’s research was fraudulent, but even at the beginning of the media scare it was clear from the published evidence that there was no proven link between the vaccine and autism.

Much of the media scare coverage of MMR referred to a now retracted study published by Wakefield and others in the highly prestigious Lancet medical journal.

This time around things have been a lot better in the news media. The Wakefield research has pretty universally (and rightly) been called “discredited”, and the public health authorities have had a lot of air time and column inches. There hasn’t been much acknowledgement of news media complicity in manufacturing this scare in the first place, but there has (again, rightly) been some soul searching.

Among the worst of the recent coverage has been the Independent’s front page coverage of a self-serving attempt from Wakefield to defend himself, to claim his innocence of any blame for the current outbreak, and to drum up some more fake controversy.

This is a pity, because publicity for his groundless claims is exactly what this man wants, and that’s what got us in this mess in the first place.

Posted by Dr Andy Williams