Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

A doctor’s view: ‘The MMR vaccine was a godsend’

Posted in News by Skepdude on January 4, 2010


I’m old enough to have practised medicine before we had vaccines against measles, mumps and rubella. I still remember the 13-year-old girl dying of sudden and severe measles in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham when I was a final year medical student. And the 11-year old boy with mumps encephalitis (a swelling of the brain), whom I looked after when I was a house officer in the Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

In my early years in practice I had to cope with outbreaks of measles every few years. It was a horrible disease. Children suffered greatly from painful wracking coughs for days on end, for which we could do very little. Then there were the unlucky children with hearing, sight and brain impairments because their mothers had caught rubella during their pregnancies.

The MMR vaccine was therefore a godsend; most of the doctors who have graduated in the last two decades have never had the misfortune to see measles, mumps or rubella. It is taken for granted that these illnesses won’t return and now people have forgotten how distressing they are. As time passes, there’s an impression that they were only mild diseases, and that immunisation against them is now more damaging than the illnesses themselves. It is a dangerous development.

Since we started vaccinating people against diseases in the 18th century we have always had an anti-vaccination lobby. The introduction of a compulsory vaccination against smallpox in 1853 stirred up mass action: one demonstration by antivaccinationists in Leicester in 1865 attracting 20,000 people.

In the 1970s the anti-vaccine lobby was stirred to action again with the claim that the whooping cough element in the standard series of childhood immunisations against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough was causing brain damage. The steep drop in uptake led to many cases of whooping cough, leading to long-term lung damage. It took ten years of careful studies to disprove the claim, and whooping cough immunisation rates slowly returned to their pre-scare levels.

Then came 1998. Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues proposed that MMR might cause autism.


Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit

Posted in SkepticBlog by Skepdude on January 4, 2010


We are still in the midst of the libel suit brought by the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh, and now another defender of science has been targeted by such a suit. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine have been sued for libel by Barbara Loe Fisher, the head of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC).

Here is a pdf of the complaint.

The subject of the suit is the excellent article by Amy Wallace criticizing the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace was attacked for this piece by anti-vaccinationists – essentially because she got the story correct. Wallace pointed out that the science strongly favors vaccine effectiveness and safety, and that the anti-vaccine movement is dangerously wrong – hurting the public health with their misinformation. The anti-vaccinationists were apparently very upset over be called out by a mainstream journalist. They got a lot of bad press this year, the Chicago Tribune also did a series of articles detailing the dangerous pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement. Wallace’s article earned her a place in the infamous baby-eating photo (along side Offit and yours truly) that only served to further embarrass the anti-vaccine movement via the blog, Age of Autism.

The law suit, in this context, seems like just the next step in the campaign against Offit and Wallace.

The NVIC, despite its innocuous name, is an ideological anti-vaccination group, and they were targeted among others in the Wallace piece. Fisher found a sentence in the article that she felt she could build a libel case around.

Fisher, who has long been the media’s go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call “parents rights,” makes him particularly nuts, as in “You just want to scream.” The reason? “She lies,” he says flatly.

“She lies” will now be the subject of as much analysis as the term “bogus” was in Singh’s article about the BCA, so I might as well start. Critics often walk a fine line – we want to accurately portray the actions and claims of the targets of our criticism, without holding any punches, but we have to be clear in our terminology and careful not to inadvertently give the wrong impression. The term “lie” is problematic. It is not necessarily inaccurate, but it can carry implications not intended by the writer, because it may imply something about what another person knows or believes.


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