Children in Wales and the North-East are now reaping a harvest sown by scaremongering newspapers. There are a couple of localised outbreaks of measles - a disease which the MMR vaccine had virtually eliminated. Numbers are currently small, but growing, and the Welsh Health service notes:
The National Public Health Service for Wales (NPHS) is continuing to investigate outbreaks of measles in Mid and West Wales that have now resulted in 127 cases and led to four children being hospitalised.
The NPHS continues to remind parents that measles is a serious and potentially fatal illness and vaccination is the only way to stop the spread of the virus.
Why is this happening? Because use of the MMR vaccine for infants has dropped dramatically in various parts of the country. And why was that? Let me see:
'Scientists fear MMR link to autism' (Daily Mail)
'New MMR link found to autism' (Daily Mail)
'GCSE pupils brainwashed to support the MMR vaccine' (Daily Mail)
'New fears over MMR link to autism' (Daily Telegraph)
and just for good measure the Observer weighed in too.
The headlines are mainly based on a study of 12 people by a Dr. Andrew Wakefield, but the study would have remained an obscure scientific paper (and an opinion in a miniscule minority in the scientific community), without the publicity it was given by the press. Ben Goldacre argues on his Bad Science blog that journalists and editors have constructed their greatest hoax to date, and finally demonstrated that they can pose a serious risk to public health.
I'm naturally a bit suspicious of the media, and I'm sure there's a bit of a debate to be had about this one. But if you're going to dish it out, you have to be prepared to take it. If MP's are prepared to pay back expenses after being found out by the Telegraph, I hope the Telegraph in turn (and the rest of them) - if it's found to have contributed to a unfounded public perception that MMR was unsafe - will make a suitable donation to the Health Authorities who find themselves dealing with the current measles outbreak.
It's significant that the NHS itself calls the dip in MMR uptake 'the newspaper effect'.
Update, the Guardian has helpfully worked out how many extra copies the Telegraph has sold off the back of the expenses affair, so they should have a slush fund somewhere for good causes.