Well, well, well. People have been saying for six years now that they believe there's a link between the MMR jab and autism. Now US scientists have done research that points to a possible link between thiomersal (a mercury-based preservative used in the whooping cough vaccine) and an autistic illness in mice.
If you're credulous, then it looks like a really weird coincidence. A vaccine is linked to a disease, and then lo and behold, some scientific research finds a link between another vaccine and the same disease.
If you're logical though, it's not much of a coincidence at all. None of the theories that have linked MMR to autism have anything whatever to do with thiomersal. Instead, they mainly focus on the measles vaccine, suggesting that it is the presence of this in the gut which proves a link to autism (although, clearly, the research widely conducted to check this out, says it doesn't).
No one, anywhere, not even Dr Andrew Wakefield - supposed to be a champion to the parents of autistic children, but actually a fermenter of their anger, guilt and regret - can prove anything at all. That doesn't matter though. In Britain, take-up of MMR is down to a reported 53 per cent in some areas. In another 90 countries, people are perfectly satisfied with the protection the triple jab gives to their children.
But that won't stop the controversy over thiomersal creating in people's minds a link, a sense of satisfaction that their own decision to opt their children out of all or part of Britain's immunisation programme was entirely justified. It is feeding into the idea that the medical establishment has sinister or greedy reasons for pushing the vaccination programme, and that our children are the innocent victims of this amorphous but pitiless conspiracy.
Many mothers I know have refused to have their children immunised at all. One recently said she had made the decision because she didn't want her son "pumped full of chemicals at eight weeks". She went on to explain how her boy, who is now one year old, was not at risk as long as everybody else pumped their own children full of chemicals.
How did we get to the point where a carefully monitored programme developed to keep our nation luxuriously disease-free, through the simple expedient of stimulating out own natural anti-bodies, became so distrusted that it is seen as a pointless exercise in pumping babies full of chemicals?
Partly, as this latest debacle illustrates, it is the fault of the Department of Health, who just won't join in with the hypocritical creed of the times and do what looks good and appeals to the sentimental heart of Britain rather than what is sensible and appeals to the logic of an educated first- world population. Take this latest scare, over thiomersal. The government actually promised to phase out thiomersal in 1999, when concerns over its safety (but not linking it to MMR) prompted its banning in other countries including Japan, the US and Australia.
Since then, on the NHS, one vaccine with and one without thiomersal have been available, although the DoH has not been exactly trumpeting this fact. Critics say this is due to the non-thiomersal jab being more expensive, and this is probably the case. Which looks terribly callous, but isn't. Even now, the thiomersal jabs are being withdrawn only as a precaution. There is still no research in the world which proves conclusively that thiomersal is damaging. That is probably the reason why no one in the medical profession in Britain has been in too much of a hurry to get rid of it, and probably the reason why it imagines that British parents will carry on filing in to get their children "pumped full of mercury" until September, when the non-thiomersal supplies will be available.
Yet, the medical profession's ability to get this point across is zero, especially when it has been complacent enough to wait until it looks like its hand has been forced by the US autism report. It is all very well for the DoH to announce that their decision is nothing to do with the findings. But the timing looks bad, as does the previously lackadaisical attitude that the DoH displayed towards thiomersal anyway.
What's more, having reassured the public for years now that the immunisation programme is as safe as it could possibly be, it also chooses this time to reveal that the polio vaccine, previously live, will now be a good deal safer because it removes the risk of polio contamination. Finally, in the midst of all the worry and unrest about "overloading immune systems" with combination vaccines, they decide that now is the time to make the vaccine a five-in-one, for the sake of convenience, time and money.
The poor old DoH relies on cold scientific logic, shorn of presentational pzazz or marketing magic or any of the other things we say we hate about modern life but are in thrall to. The decisions the department has made, their timing and their mode of announcement - all are without guile, clumsy in their naive appeal to pragmatic trust in an NHS and a Government that cares for the nation's children.
But instead we are half in love with the idea of conspiracy. Brought up on a diet of living Elvis and assassinated Marilyn, popular culture dictates that Dr David Kelly was no suicide and even, occasionally, that Diana lives. Whatever is presented to us, it seems, the only smart thing to do is consider that the very opposite might be true.
But there are other factors at work here too. We have lost faith in the idea of individual action for the collective good, seeing it as something awful that happened on the other side of a wall that eventually came down. But what's also come down are the class divisions that liberalism and also Thatcherism introduced. We are now less credulous of what we used to see as our existential elders and betters - politicians, doctors, civil servants. We no longer trust them to make the decisions that are best for us. Unable to go anywhere though, with this rejection of authority, we simply decide that they instead have our worst interests at heart, and are prepared to callously sacrifice our babies to their own vested interests.
And of course we all adore individualism. The most important thing is that we have a choice. But the choice that people prate about in the immunisation debate is a trivial choice. The great battleground is reckoned to be persuading the NHS to waive its cost considerations and offer the children of Britain individual vaccinations if they want them. I doubt there is the staff for this, let alone the money. But never mind.
In order to force this choice, those who are boycotting the immunisation programme may push matters to a crisis which will remind them of what their choice really is. In a measles outbreak infecting 5,000 children, 200 will need hospital treatment, 20 to 30 will need intensive care and 10 will die. And people will be reminded of just what a frivolous luxury it is to refuse immunisation. The awful thing is that with vaccination take-up falling at the rate it is, an epidemic is the only thing that will puncture our strange brand of hysterical complacency around this matter. How previous generations would have marvelled at such a luxury being available. How much more they would have marvelled at the casual manner in which, between us, the Department of Health and its patients are squandering it.
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