Let’s knock MMR battle on the head

Well done, Dr Eileen Ruberry. Finally, an important medical personage has seen sense on the MMR and recommended that the government retreat from its intransigent approach and allow concerned parents to choose triple injections. This does not mean she is convinced by Dr Andrew Wakefield's attempts to prove the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine is linked to autism. She is not. It simply means that she recognises that allowing a minority of parents to choose the time-consuming option of separate jabs is the best way to deal with the situation.

Her grasping of the thistle contrasts with the craven approach of the Scottish Parliament’s expert committee on the same subject, which dispiritingly trotted out the old Department of Health line that single jabs would increase trauma for children and reduce uptake. The group seemed to miss the point that the vast majority of parents accept the assurances of the government and the scientific establishment that the MMR is safe, and that they are happy to go with that.
There is a minority who will not and cannot do that. In some situations it is unreasonable to expect them to. For instance, if you already had an inexplicably autistic child, would you, in all conscience, subject your other children to MMR? I don’t think most people would. Even if the evidence of large-scale population studies is that there is no link between MMR and autism, you might in this case have reason
to believe that your children were particularly vulnerable and decide that you would prefer to keep clear of the vaccine for peace of mind.
Parents ought to have a choice. If they felt more in control it might be easier to convince them to take up the MMR – the three-in-one argument should be effective with families. Most mothers find having their children injected very stressful and unpleasant. I wince and cry out in pain and usually have a headache for the rest of the day when I have to supervise such a procedure, delegating it wherever possible to hard- hearted grandma.
As the evidence continues to mount, as experts say it will, that there is no apparent link between MMR and autism, the number choosing single injections should shrink to a barely significant statistic, but the vital point is that allowing MMR refuseniks to stay on board the vaccination programme will defend the health not just of their children but of society as a whole.
It will also sidestep what can be a very contentious and difficult issue for health professionals. A study in a paediatric magazine showed most GPs would like to have this option. They don’t like having to try to push parents into something they don’t want to do, and feel it can damage the trust some families have in them.
However, the Department of Health continues to treat parents like a bad-tempered farmer with a herd of silly cows, believing we can’t be trusted with choice, but have to be kicked and beaten into the right pen.
Ruberry has shown enormous courage in breaking ranks, and ought to be applauded for it. For me, as a parent of three small children, this subject is constantly under review. I have written in the past about how I took my older son to France to get him a single measles injection. That was three years ago, just after the Wakefield study which began this controversy came out. I felt then I would prefer to take this step because I worried that if Walter did prove to be autistic there would always be a question mark in my mind about whether the vaccine had contributed to that.
At the time, I thought that perhaps he might have the pre-school booster to get immunity to mumps and rubella. That time has now rolled around and he is waiting for an appointment to have the MMR.
For a while, I was not sure whether I would go through with it, but I now feel fairly confident. A Panorama programme about Dr Andrew Wakefield did show that his methodology was sometimes suspect. The large-scale studies from various countries, while not watertight, have not shown up the kind of pattern you might expect to find if MMR were causing autism or Crohn’s disease. I know now that my son, sensitive and emotionally aware, is not autistic.
Other contributions to the public debate have also influenced me – an interview in The Herald with the McGarry
family, parents of a rubella-damaged baby, was one. Emma McGarry, who had no immunity against German measles, caught it when pregnant and the consequences for her unborn child were terrible.
The other thing that concerns me is the danger of the British controversy about MMR being exported to the developing world. It is relatively unlikely that well-nourished children who have access to the best medical care would be severely damaged by a childhood brush with mumps or rubella. That is not the case in Africa where, for instance, there are many HIV-positive children who succumb easily to childhood ailments.
The best thing for everyone would be if we could knock this battle over MMR on the head and consign it to the past. The best way of doing that is to investigate the cases of apparent vaccine damage in a public inquiry and to accommodate the wishes of the comparatively small number of parents who don’t feel able to have the MMR by allowing them to choose
single vaccines.

The Scottish Herald
May 8th 2002