Observations Medicine and the media

MMR: the scare stories are back

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.39280.447419.59 (Published 19 July 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:126
  1. Ben Goldacre, doctor and writer, London, and BMJ and Guardian columnist
  1. ben{at}badscience.net

    A UK newspaper has once again linked autism with MMR and sparked a spate of media scaremongering. But the original story was wrong on every count, writes Ben Goldacre

    It was inevitable that the media would re-ignite the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) autism scare during Andrew Wakefield's General Medical Council hearing (doi: 10.1136/bmj.39280.513310.4E). In the past two weeks, however, one front page splash in the broadsheet Sunday newspaper the Observer (8 July) has drawn widespread attention: the newspaper effectively claimed to know the views of named academics better than those academics themselves, and to know the results of research better than the people who did it. Smelling a rat—as one might—for once, I decided to pursue every detail.

    The Observer's story made three key points: that new research had found an increase in the prevalence of autism, to 1 in 58; that the lead academic on this study was so concerned he suggested raising the finding with public heath officials; and that two “leading researchers” on the team believed that the rise was due to the MMR vaccine. By the time the week was out, this story had been recycled in several other national newspapers, and the 1 in 58 figure had even been faithfully reproduced in a BMJ news article (doi: 10.1136/bmj.39272.468044.4E).

    On every one of these three key points the Observer story was simply wrong.

    The newspaper claimed that an “unpublished” study from the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge had found a prevalence for autism of 1 in 58. I contacted the centre: the study that the Observer reported is not finished and is not published. The data have been collected, but they have not been analysed.

    Unpublished data is a recurring theme in MMR scares, and it is the antithesis of what science is about: …

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