Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Thursday, October 20, 2005

The MMR is safe - what other scare stories are nonsense?

The MMR is safe - what other scare stories are nonsense?
By Boris Johnson
(Filed: 20/10/2005)

So when are we getting an apology? That's what I want to know. I realise it is a faint hope, but if there were any decency in journalism the Daily Mail would now be clearing its front page and grovelling to the British public.

If there were an ounce of scruple, the beasts of Derry Street would now be making a pilgrimage to the Department of Health, shuffling forwards on their knees and flagellating themselves with copies of their brutal cellulite-obsessed publication.

If these monsters had any sense of accountability they would man the Tube stations, like sellers of the Big Issue, handing out leaflets explaining their error; and if I have mentioned this subject before, you must forgive me, because it really gets my goat.

Yesterday, all the newspapers carried a fascinating story, a good news story, namely that fears over the MMR vaccine were unfounded. In 1998 there had been a scare that there was a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and the onset of childhood autism.

And in the ensuing panic, whipped up by the tabloid press, millions of anxious parents decided not to give their children the vaccine, with the result that there was a significant uptick in the incidence of those diseases.

Now, thank heavens, it seems that the link is non-existent, that it is safe to give your baby the jab. So all the newspapers reported yesterday; all, that is, except one.

There is not even a paragraph, not a blob, not a brief in the Daily Mail. This is the paper that helped to cause panic in thousands of households that read and trusted and admired its journalism. This is the paper that assiduously fanned the flames of that panic, that decided to turn MMR into one of its campaigns, and now it won't even publish a sentence debunking the story.

Is it because it is too proud to admit that it was wrong, or is it because it doesn't want to let the facts get in the way of a good panic?

I hope that tomorrow the Daily Mail does carry this news, not just for the elucidation of its poor readers, but mainly because this implicit retraction would be good for the paper's soul; and since the Mail is admired across what was once called Fleet Street, it would be good for the media as a whole.

The main reason why the Mail should publish the good news about MMR and autism is that it would help deter them, and others, from ramping up such panics in future.

I don't know how you feel about these stories of bird flu from China, and the question of whether it can be passed from chicken to human being. As far as I can tell the only victims are the poor Thai fighting-cock enthusiasts who have engaged in direct osculation with their birds, in an effort to revive them for the fight.

We have not yet seen a single example of transmission from one human being to another. And so as soon as I saw that chief medical officer on the television, warning that there would be 50,000 casualties in this country, and that it was a question of when, not if, the calamity befell us, I was irresistibly reminded of the great BSE fiasco.

In case you have forgotten, there were scientists at that time who were going on the telly and warning us that it would be necessary to construct new hospices on every street corner, such would be the ubiquity of Variant CJD. They said the dead would run into hundreds of thousands. We're all at risk, they said. The average Brit has eaten 40 infected meals a year.

So we panicked; the media panicked; the Government panicked, and soon half a million cows had been slaughtered and burnt. The taxpayer coughed up more than £5 billion and the British beef industry was more or less wiped out.

How many confirmed cases of vCJD have there been in the last 15 years? There have been 157, and the incidence is tailing off, and we are still not quite sure of the link between bovine spongiform encephalopathy and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

In so far as I harbour any long-term resentment over that episode, it is not so much against the scientists, but against what was then the Labour opposition, who did so much to whip up hysteria against British beef.

The media should realise that there will always be politicians ready to give an alarmist quote, to demand action, to call for a ban; and it should be the job of the media to be cynical, because sometimes politicians find public alarm very convenient.

We were recently told by Baroness Scotland, for instance, that Britain was "facing the gravest threat this nation has ever faced". Tony Blair has informed his countrymen that they face "an existential threat" from terror; and that is, of course, precisely what they want us to think, because they are determined to rush through all sorts of "anti-terror" legislation, such as ID cards and the end of habeas corpus, that greatly expand the power of the state and remove the immemorial liberties of the British people.

That is why it was so wonderful to read the truth on the front of yesterday's Daily Telegraph, that the world is getting safer and safer, and that there are 40 per cent fewer conflicts than in the 1990s, and that terrorism is certainly not the greatest threat to humanity.

Remember, O you titans of the media, that when you ratchet up a panic you are not only doing the work of bossy politicians; you are also making inevitable new laws and new regulations, and with new regulations come thousands of new public sector employees, charged with policing them.

The Mail yesterday had a terrific attack on the failure to contain public sector pensions, and the explosion in the number of state officials. Correct!

But think how often, by joining in panic journalism, the tabloids have boosted the cries for health and safety legislation which is, of course, a prime cause of that public sector expansion.

Let the Mail think of its own role in the problems the economy faces… but, first, a full apology for the MMR scare.

* Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator

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