MMR, Andrew Wakefield and the Independent

On middle class exceptionalism and why despite his intervention in the Independent, Andrew Wakefield is still wrong.

The Independent has been criticised for ushering Andrew Wakefield - the discredited surgeon who linked MMR to autism and bowel disease - into its coverage of the recent measles outbreak in Wales. Wakefield was struck off the medical record in 2002. His claims have been proved false in countless studies. Yet the former medical researcher says he retains his position, arguing “the Government’s concern appeared to be to protect the MMR programme over and above the protection of children”.

So why, despite Time heralding Wakefield’s Lancet report as among its “Great Science Frauds”, has the Independent given front page coverage to the former doctor?

A spokesperson for the Department of Health was forced to doggedly reiterate the facts: “Dr Andrew Wakefield’s claims are completely incorrect,” he said. “Measles is a highly infectious and harmful disease. If your child has not had two doses of MMR, whatever their age, we urge you to contact your GP surgery and make an appointment.” Ben Goldacre was a little more candid:

Richard Ashcroft, Professor of Bioethics at Queen Mary University of London, pointed to the erroneous use of the denomination "Dr":

Public Health Wales has estimated the number of unvaccinated at over 40,000. Drop-in clinics have been established across south Wales, offering free MMR immunisations - which begs the question: why would the Indie put Wakefield on the front page at such a critical time? A spokesman from Public Health England, speaking on BBC Breakfast this morning, laid the blame on "middle class" parents having believed they knew better than the state, exempting their children from nationally available MMR jabs. Around 95 per cent of the population is generally required to be vaccinated in order for immunisation to be 100 per cent effective.

Katherine Clarke, a researcher at University College London, told me: "It was misinformation in the press that led to the decline in uptake in vaccinations." The Lancet report was only a case series, the second in a number stages - later ones include clinical trials which test the propositions made in case studies and series - which may later lead to health recommendations. "So many people still do not realise there is just no evidence whatsoever to support Wakefield's claims."

A nurse draws an MMR vaccination. Photograph: Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.