The false scare about autism and the MMR jab

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Backstory: Last week’s Observer ‘broke’ a story on its front page about unpublished research by the Cambridge University Autism Research Centre. The research looked at how different methods of defining autism affected the number of people defined as autistic. One method (which involved asking parents) suggested the figure could be as high as 1 in 58 people. Other more scientific methods suggested higher ratios (e.g. 1 in 100). The research was unpublished because it was unfinished and not peer reviewed, but was published in the paper anyway. But that’s not the main issue.

The main issue is that the Observer misinterpreted the results of this unpublished research. The paper claimed the research showed an increase in the prevalence of autism. Based on this misinterpretation it then blamed the supposed increase on the MMR vaccination, saying that two of the seven authors of the report privately thought the MMR jab might be partly to blame for the alleged rise in autism. This reignited the whole debate about a possible link a week before the GMC were due to start an inquiry into Dr Andrew Wakefield.

This was bad and irresponsible journalism for three reasons:

1. It conflated a study about defining levels of autism with causes of autism. The study is not about causes, neither is it saying that autism is increasing (see letter from head of the autism centre, Professor Simon Baron-Cohen). There is no new research about causes that contradicts or calls into question previous research

2. The paper completely misrepresented one of the scientists concerned. Dr Fiona Scott has since written that: “What appeared in the article was a flagrant misrepresentation of my opinions – unsurprising given that they were published without my being spoken to. It is outrageous that the article states that I link rising prevalence figures to use of the MMR. I have never held this opinion. I do not think the MMR jab ‘might be partly to blame’.”

3. The Observer failed to mention that the other person who had apparently expressed concerns privately works for Dr Andrew Wakefield in Texas. Not only that but she left Cambridge years ago under a cloud (for more details see Bad Science) and reportedly received £100,000 for her part in arguing for a link between MMR and autism during litigation

Therefore not only did the Observer renew fears about the link without any new research about causation, one of its key sources says she was never consulted and categorically denies she thinks there is any link, and the other source is at best highly conflicted.

All of which makes the original story bad and irresponsible journalism, and makes the column by the Observer’s Readers’ Editor, Stephen Pritchard, unacceptably uninformative and uncritical.

The most bizarre postscript to the whole story is that Dr Scott – the researcher who says she was not contacted by the Observer nor did she say what they said she said – ended up having to respond to the Observer by adding her comment along with the rest below Pritchard’s column.

Written by Martin Moore

July 16th, 2007 at 1:18 pm

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