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The media’s MMR hoax

Posted in Bad Science by Skepdude on September 2, 2008

Before we begin, it’s worth taking a moment to look at vaccine scares around the world, because I’m always struck by how circumscribed these panics are. The MMR and autism scare, for example, is practically non-existent outside Britain. But throughout the 1990s France was in the grip of a scare that hepatitis B vaccine caused multiple sclerosis.

In the US, the major vaccine fear has been around the use of a preservative called thiomersal, although somehow this hasn’t caught on here, even though that same preservative was used in Britain. In the 1970s there was a widespread concern in the UK, driven again by a single doctor, that whooping-cough vaccine was causing neurological damage.

What the diversity of these anti-vaccination panics helps to illustrate is the way in which they reflect local political and social concerns more than a genuine appraisal of the risk data, because if the vaccine for hepatitis B, or MMR, is dangerous in one country, it should be equally dangerous everywhere; and if those concerns were genuinely grounded in the evidence, especially in an age of the rapid propagation of information, you would expect the concerns to be expressed by journalists everywhere. They’re not.

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