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Welsh study: Half of all British parents wrongly believe scientists are split over MMR vaccine safety

CARDIFF, Wales: Half of all British parents wrongly believe that scientists are split over the safety of the triple MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, according to findings from Cardiff University reported on May 19. 

A media "feeding frenzy" has wrongly convinced people that medics are divided over the  combined jab when in fact as many as three-quarters of them support it, said the survey of 1,000 people by the taxpayer-funded Economic and Social Research Council at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. The report could reignite the debate about the way the media has handled the MMR controversy.

Since the British gastroenterologist, Dr Andrew Wakefield, first raised concerns in 1998 about  possible links between the MMR and autism and bowel disease in children, take-up of the vaccine has steadily declined. In Wales, 78.8 per cent of children have had the triple vaccine, although many parents - particularly in the Swansea area, where the rate is even lower - have opted for single-jab alternatives provided by many private clinics.

Parts of Wales have started to see a resurgence in measles infection in unvaccinated children - more than 30 were affected in two outbreaks in Cardiff and Pontypool this year.

The new research found that, at the height of media coverage about the MMR jab, 53 per cent of those asked believed that, because both sides of the debate received equal coverage, there must be equal evidence for each.

Dr Wakefield's claims stood almost alone in a scientific field dominated by research reporting that MMR is safe, the report found found. The British government and the medical field also maintained that the triple jab was the safest way to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella.

Despite the weight of evidence against Dr Wakefield, 23 per cent of the population who absorbed the media coverage of the debate knew of its existence, the researchers said.

The amount of time and space dedicated to covering the MMR issue has been vigorously defended by the media in its role of legitimately informing the public about a vaccine that is routinely offered to every child. But the Cardiff researchers claim that almost half the British public disagree with the media's right to publish such information. They found 48 per cent felt that, on matters of public health, journalists should wait until other studies had confirmed findings before reporting such "alarming" research.

But 34 per cent said research such as Dr Wakefield's was newsworthy and should be reported.

"The survey confirms that the news media play a key role in informing the way people understand issues such as the controversy around MMR," said the research author, Professor Justin Lewis. "While Wakefield's claims are of legitimate public interest, our report shows that research questioning the safety of something which is widely used should be approached with caution, both by scientists and journalists. This is especially the case where any decline in confidence can have serious consequences for public health."

Although Dr Wakefield may be a lone voice in the science world, there is a growing group of parents convinced of a link between the MMR and autism who are campaigning for studies on their children to be done. The Welsh-based Western Mail newspaper has reported Julie Loch's view that her six-year-old son, Oliver, developed a form of regressive autism after receiving the MMR jab. She has "no doubt" that he was damaged. Natalie Bowden, a Swansea mother-of-three who has campaigned for parents to be given the choice between the MMR and single vaccines on the National Health Service, said it was nonsense to suggest that parents were not choosing MMR simply because of the media. She called on the British government to commission an independent study into the issue, and predicted that studies in the United States would push forward the debate in the United Kingdom.

Unlike most scientific controversies, which flare up and die away, this one has simmered on for the past six years. It has been sustained by a mix of public emotions including anxiety about environmental threats (pollution, GM foods, pesticides), sympathy for a lone doctor ranged against the medical establishment and public mistrust of the government after the debacle over BSE.

Professor Justin Lewis, one of the authors of the study, said: "While Wakefield's claims are of legitimate public interest, our report shows that research questioning the safety of something that is widely used should be approached with caution, both by scientists and by journalists. This is especially the case where any decline in confidence can have serious consequences for public health."

A prominent theme of the coverage was the proposal to give parents the choice of three separate jabs, even though there was no research to show that this was a safer option. The survey of public opinion found that 31 per cent of people supported single vaccines with only 47 per cent preferring the combined MMR jab. "There is no doubt that the long-term public health consequences of a fall in vaccination levels are profound," the report concluded.

The research also revealed public disquiet over the way journalists deal with minority voices within science. Almost half of those questioned said that on matters of public health, journalists should wait for corroboration before reporting alarming research.

(Sources: The Western Mail; The Daily Telegraph; The Independent, May 19, 2003)  
CARDIFF, Wales: Half of all British parents wrongly believe that scientists are split over the safety of the triple MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, according to findings from Cardiff University reported on May 19. 

A media "feeding frenzy" has wrongly convinced people that medics are divided over the  combined jab when in fact as many as three-quarters of them support it, said the survey of 1,000 people by the taxpayer-funded Economic and Social Research Council at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. The report could reignite the debate about the way the media has handled the MMR controversy.

Since the British gastroenterologist, Dr Andrew Wakefield, first raised concerns in 1998 about  possible links between the MMR and autism and bowel disease in children, take-up of the vaccine has steadily declined. In Wales, 78.8 per cent of children have had the triple vaccine, although many parents - particularly in the Swansea area, where the rate is even lower - have opted for single-jab alternatives provided by many private clinics.

Parts of Wales have started to see a resurgence in measles infection in unvaccinated children - more than 30 were affected in two outbreaks in Cardiff and Pontypool this year.

The new research found that, at the height of media coverage about the MMR jab, 53 per cent of those asked believed that, because both sides of the debate received equal coverage, there must be equal evidence for each.

Dr Wakefield's claims stood almost alone in a scientific field dominated by research reporting that MMR is safe, the report found found. The British government and the medical field also maintained that the triple jab was the safest way to protect children against measles, mumps and rubella.

Despite the weight of evidence against Dr Wakefield, 23 per cent of the population who absorbed the media coverage of the debate knew of its existence, the researchers said.

The amount of time and space dedicated to covering the MMR issue has been vigorously defended by the media in its role of legitimately informing the public about a vaccine that is routinely offered to every child. But the Cardiff researchers claim that almost half the British public disagree with the media's right to publish such inf

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