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MMR, Andrew Wakefield and the Independent

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

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

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."