A short break from your usual Patrick Holford coverage – courtesy of some more awful mainstream media MMR reporting. It was disappointing to see the Observer running such god-awful autism/MMR stories, but to see the BMJ pick up the Observer’s inaccurate figures (the claim that 1 in 58 children is on the autistic spectrum) is even more disturbing: this is a journal that should know how to do maths, and should know what a diagnosis is. I’ll deal with the BMJ claim first, and then move onto some jaw-droppingly awful MMR reporting in the Guardian.
I’m pleased to say that they published a rapid response from me, where I point out that:
It is alarming that and alarmist for the BMJ to repeat the claim that “lead researcher, Simon Baron-Cohen, said that this study, which examined some 12 000 primary school children in Cambridgeshire, will conclude that one in 58 children has such a disorder”. Simon Baron-Cohen said something very different to The Times, where he was quoted arguing that that the leaked draft is at a stage where it “is as accurate as jottings in a notebook”. I am not sure where the BMJ got its figures from, but it is incorrect to assume that 1 in 58 figure is reliable.
Moreover, the 1 in 58 figure is taken from the use of the CAST questionnaire. This questionnaire assesses whether children are at risk of being on the autistic spectrum; it does not provide a diagnosis. It is also known to generate a high rate of false positives. Therefore, even it 1 in 58 children tested ‘positive’ on this questionnaire, this would not demonstrate that 1 in 58 children is on the autistic spectrum.
There’s a much more detailed explanation of what the BMJ got wrong on BreathSpa. Hopefully, the BMJ will publish a correction promptly.
You would think that the Guardian might be a bit more careful when covering MMR, given the criticism attracted by its sister paper the Observer. However, David Batty’s MMR Q&A makes a couple of daft mistakes.
Describing the ongoing Autism Omnibus in the US, Batty states that
the US court case is not about the MMR vaccine itself. It is concerned with the use of a preservative called thimerosal, which contains 50% mercury and until a few years ago was added to routine vaccinations given to children under one in the US. The preservative has never been an element of the MMR vaccine here.
I think it’s worth reminding Batty what the MMR vaccine is. This is a live vaccine, and has therefore never contained thimerosal – in the US or UK. Adding a preservative like thimerosal would ‘kill’ the vaccine – much like pasteurising live yogurt – so for obvious reasons this preservative has never been used in MMR.
I’ve been disappointed by the lack of coverage of the Autism Omnibus in the UK media – the testimony in this court case is doing a very good job of tearing apart claims that either the MMR vaccine or the thimerosal in other vaccines causes autism. However, even given this lack of coverage, Batty really should know that this Omnibus does also include discussion of MMR (including some totally damning testimony on Wakefield’s science).
It’s important for the media to cover this story accurately – misinformation has very serious consequences. Disturbingly, the Guardian has been refusing to allow its Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre to run a column criticising the bad MMR science in its sister paper. It is imperative that the Guardian runs this column ASAP: so that Ben can correct, not just the bad science in the Observer, but also the sloppy reporting that the Guardian and the BMJ (the BMJ of all places!) is adding to the ever-growing pile. It is now time for an act of contrition and reparation.