How are people meant to find out the facts about MMR and Wakefield? Neither Holford nor the Observer seem to be helping

This blog has been critical of Holford’s writing on MMR, autism and Wakefield. We were surprised that Holford made such a hash of summarising the evidence on this issue, and especially disturbed that he failed to note that Wakefield faced serious charges from the GMC – including the charge that he carried our unethical, unnecessary, painful and potentially harmful experiments on vulnerable children. Naturally, I expected that – even if Holford chose not to let his readers know about the serious charges Wakefield faced – the mainstream media would offer a more accurate summary of the issues. At least as far as the Observer is concerned, I was disappointed. My next post will look in more detail at the ethics of experimenting on children – if right-on papers like the Observer are totally incapable of doing a competent job of this, maybe blogs can offer slightly less dismal coverage – but first I think that the Observer deserves some attention.

Last week, the Observer ran a jaw-droppingly awful front page article on MMR. Luckily, though, they have a Readers’ Editor – Simon Pritchard – to correct this type of mistake. Well, kind-of. In fact, in a “short piece…riddled with self-exoneration“, Pritchard fails to correct most of the mistakes in the original article, and actually includes basic mistakes in his own column. Genius.

Pritchard ends his column by stating that “the central point, in my view, is that the leaked story of the apparent rise in the prevalence of autism was a perfectly legitimate and accurate story in its own right, which did not need the introduction of the MMR theory.” However, this was only a draft study and therefore was not reliable. Prof. Baron-Cohen (a prominent participant in the team behind the leaked study, described by the Times as “head of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University and one of the most authoritative figures in the field”) makes clear that the leaked draft was at a stage where it “is as accurate as jottings in a notebook”. More damningly, the alarmist 1/58 autism rate referred to by the Observer was, um, not a measure of autism diagnoses – but results of a pretty basic questionnaire, which showed that 1/58 research subjects were at risk of being on the autistic spectrum. Moreover, for Baron-Cohen we should interpret the current rise in autistic spectrum disorder diagnoses as “more to do with diagnostic practice” than a rise in autism rates. So the leaked study only showed an ‘apparent’ rise in autism rates for those who lack basic statistical and critical analysis skills. Perhaps the Observer should get a Science Readers’ Editor – so that it can properly correct its mistakes in future – or just find a Readers’ Editor with basic analytical skills.

The front page Observer story on Wakefield – and their pathetic attempts at an apology – both got their facts seriously wrong. They also both failed to mention the details of the serious charges against Wakefield – including allegations of unethical experiments on children. Aside from making their coverage of debates around Wakefield and MMR extremely partial, this strikes me as disrespectful to those children who allegedly suffered as a result of Wakefield experimenting on them.

I still believe that Holford owes it to his readers and supporters – and to the alleged victims of Wakefield – to correct his claim that Wakefield might be “struck off for…challenging the status quo”. I also believe that the Observer owes it to its readers to devote a substantial piece – as the mistakes pile up and are compounded by the failure to issue a prompt and accurate correction, I would suspect that several thousand words will be necessary – to correct its very basic, very careless errors.

Measles is a far from trivial condition: 12% of children and 20% of adults who contract measles will be hospitalised, and measles can have very serious effects. While the number of measles cases is rising in the UK – due to falling vaccination rates – we are not, yet, seeing that many people effected by the illness (although if one child suffers unnecessarily that is, of course, too many). Anti-vaccination bad science might therefore seem like harmless ‘alternative’ science. However, as herd immunity falls and measles cases continue to rise, the consequences of spreading inaccurate information about MMR vaccination will become steadily more apparent: consultant epidemiologist Mary Ramsay is “predicting an epidemic from this, and many places in London are already at a point where an epidemic can occur”. I hope that Patrick Holford, Denis Campbell, Simon Pritchard, and other newspaper editors, journalists and media personalities who have helped to spread bad vaccination science feel very, very proud.

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9 Comments

Filed under Andrew Wakefield, MMR, patrick holford, The Observer

9 responses to “How are people meant to find out the facts about MMR and Wakefield? Neither Holford nor the Observer seem to be helping

  1. Presenting opposing arguments as if they are equivalent sends completely the wrong message and this is a fundamental difference between journalism and decent science reporting.

  2. tifosi246

    Hmm, so while talking to his Reader’s Editor, Dennis Campbell agrees he should have included the other less alarming figures of 1 in 74 and 1 in 94. So, instead of the the sensational ” rise to 1 in 58 !” we have the more dull but more accurate “somewhere between 1 in 58 and 1 in 94, depending on how you count it”.

    Problem is, the 1 in 58 figure is now out there, to be quoted and mis-quoted at will. Thanks Dennis, you’ve really added clarity and value to this debate (not)! Please go back to mis-reporting sports results.

  3. Yes, the horror. As a minor plus, the BMJ have published a few online rapid responses (including one from me) pointing this out. Hopefully (unlike the Observer) they will correct their mistake promptly, and apologise for their error.

  4. Why do you critisize holford so much? why dont you ever critisize the drugs companies, they consistently lie and ‘bend the truth’ about clinical trials, they are only concerned with making money – to the detriment of our health. What about all the lies involved in why we need vaccines? they havent cured anything at all , as you ‘researchers’ can see rates of measels, mumps and rubella, along with polio, TB, and other diseases were on a huge decrease before vaccination was brought in. the vaccines did not contrubute to this, an increase in standard of hygeine and nutrition contributed to this downfall in the diseases, well before vaccines. How about the fact that mercury has been hugely linked to autism? until 2004, we were having 100 times the recommended doasge of mercury, when taking a vaccine.

  5. getagrip – not sure where to start with this. You do know that MMR has never contained mercury or thimerosal, and never has done?

  6. Hi – You’ve seen the name of the blog and its mission statement? We’re not here to comment on the antics of Bob the Builder.

    If you want to read expert criticism of the pharma companies then I strongly recommend that you read a dedicated blog such as Pharmagossip, Pharmalot etc.

    As for the remainder of your farrago, you saying it doesn’t make it so. Substantiate your argument with reference to primary sources (hint – unpublished work on an anti-vax site is not what I’m talking about; nor do I mean books by Cave, Halvorsen or others of that ilk).

    If you are truly seeking information on this matter, I do recommend that you look at books that have excellent resource material and a balanced look at the topic. Top results for Paul Offit, many of which are excellent. Arthur Allen’s Vaccine and a UK book by Michael Fitzpatrick, MMR the facts.

    As for the mercury – please return to this issue after reading up on ethyl mercury and methyl mercury – the form it takes in thiomersal/thimerosal, how it is metabolised and cleared from the body etc. If you would like an readily accessible overview, do look at the testimony of this matter from a real expert during the recent Autism Omnibus Hearings. Hint, neither Byers nor Aposhian (and here) count for these purposes. Brent’s testimony about mercury is learned and factual.

  7. Pingback: The Observer fails to correct or retract its glaringly obvious mistakes on autism. For the third week running. Despite these being explained to them in very, very simple terms « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

  8. Pingback: The Observer’s bad autism science spreads to Channel 4? « Holford Watch: Patrick Holford, nutritionism and bad science

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