Wednesday, July 18, 2007

A comprehensive dissection of MMR scare stories

MMR has back in the news again recently, what with Andrew Wakefield being investigated by the GMC. Wakefield's original paper, asserting a link between MMR and autism, has been pretty convincingly rejected by the scientific community - largely on the basis that his research was being funded by parents of autistic children who had received the MMR jab, and who were trying to build a legal case to claim compensation. This fact places Wakefield's 'research' firmly in the same the same boat as those 'scientific studies' that conclude that smoking isn't bad for you - coincidentally those are the studies funded by the tobacco companies. There were other quite glaring research errors too, there was a good New Scientist article a few years ago on the whole situatiuon.

So it was with some trepidation and disgust that I read the Observers front page a few weeks ago, stating that there was fresh evidence in favour of a link between MMR and autism. Putting aside the fact that this would only be the second study that suggests such a link, disagreeing with the tens of comprehensive, peer-reviewed and statistically significant studies alleging otherwise; AND the fact that the first supportive study (Wakefield's) is thoroughly discredited, even a numpty like me could see that there were several holes in the Observer's story.

Fortunately, Ben Goldacre, seemingly the only mainstream science journalist who is capable of rational thought, has investigated the new study behind the Observer's front page. Rather unsurpringly, it falls apart under analysis. Ben shows that:

a) the report that the Observer based its story on is neither published nor peer-reviewed

b) the study isn't actually even finished yet, the Observer got it's data from an interim report

c) The Observer cherry picked the most shocking statistic, ignoring the context of the report.

d) The Observer misquotes the lead scientist, Professor Simon Baron Cohen, who has since labelled the Observer's story "inaccurate and scaremongering".

e) The Observer flatly lies about the opinions of a 'leading academic' on the study, Fiona Scott. It says she was 'concerned about the results'. In fact, Scott is considering legal action against the observer for repeatedly lying about her opinion. Her actual opinion is that "I absolutely do not think that the rise in autism is related to MMR." And: "My own daughter is getting vaccinated with the MMR jab on July 17."

f) The other 'leading academic concerned about a link', Carol Stott, is not an academic. She doesn't even work in scientific research. She works in the private clinic of yes, you guessed it, Andrew Wakefield!

Will the Observer publish a front page apology and retraction of their story, which has now been quite comprehensively discredited? Probably not. The sad thing is that last March, a young 13 year-old lad who didn't receive the MMR jab became the first person to die from Measles in Britain for 14 years. Sadly, until the press grow up and start behaving responsibly, that statistic will surely rise.

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