The overlap of 2016 into 2017 has been a curious one. Within the space of a year we have witnessed great changes taking place not only on the political stage but across the spectrum. Last June The UK voted to divorce the European Union and just 5 months later the US voted in possibly its most controversial presidential candidate, Donald Trump. Love him or hate him his Marmite effect has reverberated around the world. His opinions and decisions have not only gained him support but also sparked outrage across the world. So, maybe last nights Dispatches programme on Channel 4, Trump, the Doctor and the Vaccine Scandal wasn’t such a revelation after all even if it was a little shocking.
Back in 1998 British doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed that he and 12 colleagues had found a link between the MMR vaccination and Autism. His research paper was found to be fraudulent and subsequently retracted. In 2004 Dispatches found Wakefield was also being paid by solicitors suing the makers of the MMR vaccination at the same time as he was claiming it to be unsafe. The story took the media by storm. In 1998, the date of Wakefields publication, the story featured in the press around 150 times but by 2002 this number had increased dramatically to 1250. At the time many British newspapers looked to support Wakefield’s claim. After all it was scientific research, right?
In February 2010, The Lancet fully retracted the paper on the admission that there was a number of elements within Wakefield’s paper which were incorrect. Yet despite this, thousands of children were not vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella due to parents fears their children could become autistic. Furthermore, there was a later revelation that Wakefield and colleagues were found to have been deliberately fraudulent. Between 2008-2009 outbreaks of measles were reported across the UK which were blamed on the Wakefield scandal and the consequential non-vaccination of children against the disease. However, as it was shown last night on the Dispatches programme diseases such as measles and mumps are on the rise in the US.
The discredited British doctor is now forging a career in the States as an anti-vaccine campaigner and his fearmongering has now been blamed for the increase in measles cases in Minneapolis. Wakefield has been able to spread his views across America through public lectures, his own docu-film Vaxxed and has even been in touch with newly elected President Trump. In Wakefield’s now home state Texas there is also a rapid increase in the number of mumps cases too. In the documentary, it is claimed that Trump had met with Wakefield and the show questions whether Wakefield has influenced the presidents views. Whichever way Donald Trump has tweeted about the so-called link between combined vaccinations and Autism over twenty times in the last 5 years.
In the UK, the consequences of the scandal which began in 1998 can still be felt. In 2011, it was still reported that vaccination rates in the UK were still below the 95% target set by the World Health Organisation to ensure herd immunity. Which means there are thousands of children who are still unprotected against the illnesses.
What is herd immunity?
Within a community, having a sufficient amount of people vaccinated against a disease makes it more difficult for it to pass from person to person. Herd immunity is important for people who may be too old or even too young or too ill to be vaccinated. Thus, they become reliant on others in their community who are vaccinated to keep harmful illnesses at bay.
Figure 1. Demonstrating herd immunity
Donald Trump is vocal with his opinions to say the least but when it comes to science he’s clearly not a fan. It’s not just MMR he has been sceptical about but also climate change, Ebola and even asbestos. But what is clear is that the fearmongering in the US is having an effect on parents choices with regards to vaccinating their children against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella.
His tweet from 2014, (Healthy young child goes to doctor , gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases) highlights his shared concerns with Andrew Wakefield regarding a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. The problem is the original publication has been retracted and since 17 independent scientific studies have found no causal link between the vaccine and autism.
Whether or not a child is vaccinated against an illness, whether using a combined vaccination or single doses is ultimately a parents decision. In the UK Andrew Wakefield’s work has been discredited and he has been struck off as a doctor. Yet in the US and in wider Europe, his research is still being promoted by himself and his followers as the Dispatches programme highlighted.