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