Autism and the MMR
July 10th 2007, 12:00
Times are hard for our health regulators, who have been trying for years to put the lid on the theory that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine may be linked to autism.
A new study, prepared by the prestigious autism research team at Cambridge University, suggests that autism could afflict one in 58 children in the UK - and there's no reason to think the problem isn't as prevalent in the USA. Worse, two members of the study team have broken rank and said the MMR vaccine may have something to do with the rate.
Up to now, our health watchdogs on both sides of the Atlantic have said the problem at most affects one in 100 children, so the Cambridge study - still to be published - reckons the problem is almost twice as bad as we'd all thought.
All of this has happened just a week before the UK's regulators, the General Medical Council, consider whether or not to 'strike off' Dr Andrew Wakefield, the man who started the controversy back in 1998. If they do so, Dr Wakefield will have to stop practising medicine.
The Cambridge study team has been busy trying to limit the damage. Study leader Prof Simon Baron-Cohen says there is no evidence of a link, and two other members lined up to tell journalists that they would certainly get their children vaccinated.
The damage may have already been done. Protestors are organising a mass rally outside the doors of the General Medical Council next Monday (July 16) when Dr Wakefield attends the hearing. He's accused, with two of his colleagues, of serious professional misconduct over the way he conducted the original trial that sparked the controversy.
It's hard to see how the regulators can win this one. If Dr Wakefield is exonerated, it adds momentum to his original argument. If he loses, it'll be seen as a witch hunt by a worried establishment that wants to keep the truth from the public.