Anyone out there thinking about going to merry old England for a summer excursion? Well, think carefully before you go--especially if you head to the northeast of that storied country, where they are experiencing the largest measles outbreak in nearly 20 years. A local public health official noted that "the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR." MMR is the acronym for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, which has been around for decades and is one of the safest vaccines known to man.
The vaccine rate for MMR was quite high in England until 1998, when a gastroenterologist named Andrew Wakefield held a press conference where he presented research that indicated the MMR vaccine was linked with autism. The "findings" were trumpeted by the British press, and the vaccination rate fell over the next several years from 92 percent to below 80 percent. Alas, Dr. Wakefield's research was later found to have massive financial conflicts of interest; by March 2004 a dozen of Wakefield's co-authors, including some of the preeminent names in medical research in the UK, withdrew their names from the paper. But by that time the horses were out of that particular barn, and the effects are still being felt there today. And the problem has spread to our shores as well, with any number of otherwise educated people spouting about the vaccines-autism connection as if it were fact. Newsweek magazine provides the whole story in all its sordid details here. They did a commendable job of providing crucial context and essential details; would that mainstream journalism produce this kind of work more often.
Since most Americans--or for that matter most anyone who lives in a relatively developed country--hardly give it a thought, a couple of facts about the measles might be worth sharing. It is one of the most highly contagious viruses known to humans; consequences of infection can range from mild (a few days of generalized illness and the famous facial rash) to serious (among other things, a slowly progressive brain disorder called subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, which is as ugly as it sounds), to death. In fact, in countries where the MMR vaccine is not available due to adequate funds, refrigeration, or trained personnel to administer the vaccine, it is an all-out killer: in 1999 it had killed 873,000 children (and a smaller number of adults) in just one year. As part of a massive vaccination campaign in the areas where the children are not immunized or given boosters (mostly India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the distant rural provinces of China), the World Health Organization has been trying to get the number under control, with the annual mortality down to under 250,000 children in recent years. To give you some sense of perspective, in any given year just a bit over 10,000 children younger than age 14 die in the US each year. So this is by no means a trivial problem.
For further reading, you can peruse the information here (a guide to the studies about vaccines and autism) and here (stuff about vaccine ingredients), among other places. Also, Dr. Paul Offit, one of vaccine's greatest and most lucid proponents has written a book about the whole controversy entitled Autism's False Prophets, which I have not read but it is on my reading list. I am, however, working my way through journalist Arthur Allen's tome Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver, and it's been a very good read thus far.