Media shares blame in vaccination scare

Peter
Peter Jackson
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The mantra of modern journalism has always been objectivity. Outside of designated editorial commentary, reporters are duty-bound to get all sides of a story and maintain absolute balance.

It is, of course, an impossible task.

In deciding who to interview, how to present the facts, and in deciding what stories even merit coverage at all, journalists inevitably employ varying degrees of subjective judgment.

The mask of objectivity has come off in more recent times. Reporters often double as commentators. More ominously, entire networks are established with the explicit goal of undermining “mainstream” reportage.

But it is the phenomenon known as “false balance” that is — or should be — most troubling for journalists.

Say you do a story on the cause of AIDS. You talk to a specialist who says it’s caused by a virus, HIV.

Do you then get an “expert” who says it’s caused by malnutrition? Or poor sanitation?

Do you talk to a fundamentalist who says it’s a punishment from God?

This is false balance.

And right now, Britain is experiencing the fallout of just this type of reporting.

A measles outbreak in South Wales has put dozens of children in hospital over the past few weeks. At least 700 cases were reported as of late April, and that number is expected to double.

It’s tempting to put all the blame on Andrew Wakefield, the controversial British doctor whose 1998 research paper into a supposed link between MMR vaccine and autism caused worldwide panic.

Even today, after he’s been suspended from practice in Britain following a complete refutation of his findings, Wakefield still has his die-hard followers.

Not alone

Wakefield is the prime culprit all right, but the main catalyst in this whole mess is the media (including the powerful but less accountable social media).

Anyone can tout fraudulent research. But it takes complicit journalism to give such quackery equal time against clearly more informed and credible professionals.

Why would the media do this?

Ontario pharmacist Scott Gravura contemplated that very question recently in his blog Science Based Pharmacy:

“Controversy sells. The brave maverick physician standing up against the medical establishment — Big Pharma, even.

“But this was a narrative completely out of line with the facts,” Gravura continues. “There has never been any serious scientific controversy about the MMR vaccine and autism — none. Carefully controlled studies, conducted after Wakefield’s initial paper, have failed to show any relationship.”

Astoundingly, Britain’s Independent published an article last month under the headline, “MMR scare doctor: this outbreak proves I was right.”

The piece was yet another lengthy sounding board for Wakefield.

And the blame for that, writes Martin Robbins in The New Statesman, lies squarely with its author, Jeremy Laurance.

“It’s not just the headline,” says Robbins. “Laurance’s article continues to put Wakefield’s point of view for a further 14 paragraphs, before giving over barely half that space to one contrary voice, addressing only a fraction of the points made.”

With reporting like that, you may have good reason to want to shoot the messenger.

In Canada, meanwhile, health and education officials have decided to come down hard on the unvaccinated.

Ottawa health officials warned last month that kids who weren’t vaccinated would not be allowed in area schools.

As of last Thursday, 603 students had been sent home by suspension orders.

The message is clear: take risks with your own health if you want, but don’t mess with tried and true public health policies.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Britain, South Wales, Ontario New Statesman Canada Ottawa

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  • Ross Coe
    May 08, 2013 - 16:59

    The media twisted what Wakefield said till it was unrecognizable. It caused the scare and cause the witch hunt that claimed Wakefield. The Lancet had no qualms about the medical intervention (it was not a study of vaccines). And the very vaccine in question was rejected by Canada over safety concerns. And for those who don't know Canada, Ottawa IS ONLY one city and does not represent what happens in all of Canada. Way to use media to mislead readers .

  • Magy Carter
    May 08, 2013 - 15:11

    Point takenTony. But the drugs prescribed for the two million Americans (200,000 Canadians) who died or suffered serious medical complications last year were also not considered dangerous or unproven by the medical establishment. There is some level of risk inherent in all medical interventions. That said, I support the childhood immunization program recommended by Canadian health authorities. In this instance, and based on what we know at the moment, the benefit outweighs the risk. On the other hand, I oppose the use of flu vaccines for the elderly as recommended by the same authorities. Despite the fact they are at the highest risk for flu complications, repeated studies have shown there is virtually no benefit from the vaccine to this age group. And that was - is - my central thesis. People need to do their own research and their own evaluation of the pros and cons of any medical intervention. It is the unquestioning acceptance of the pronouncements of various health groups and medical practitioners as fact that I do not support. Nor is is it true that all those people who voice dissent with conventional medical wisdom are somehow driven by pecuniary motives. It is no more reasonable than to say that all pharmaceutical companies are motivated solely by profits. That is the part of Mr. Jackson's argument with which I disagree.

    • Peter Jackson
      May 09, 2013 - 08:01

      Maggy: Just to clarify, you leap to great heights to suggest I oppose people taking personal interest in their own health care. Medicine is riddled with revision and refutation. Dissent is the driving force behind scientific research. But that means reasoned, informed dissent, not cavalierly dismissing an entire body of research in favour of some bloke on YouTube telling you to put crystals on your head. People fall for this nonsense all the time, and it's not right. It's fraud. I find it odd you take no issue with childhood vaccinations, yet still think my argument is flawed. Perhaps you just dislike my tone. If so, you're probably not alone. Finally, the number of patients hurt by medications is atrocious and should be addressed, but why are these statistics always presented without any estimate of the millions of people helped or even saved by these medications? That's not false balance.That's no balance. BTW, if you're looking for a good summary of serious flaws in pharmaceutical testing, I highly recommend Ben Goldacre's "Bad Medicine." He has a truly balanced outlook on all aspects of health care and the media.

  • Maggy Carter
    May 08, 2013 - 10:47

    There was a time when you didn't question your priest or your doctor. Their authority was absolute. You know where the first of these deifications got us, but perhaps you need a little prodding on the latter. From the days when patients were bled for all manner of diseases, there has never been a period when 'tried and proven' medical interventions have not subsequently been proven wrong, ineffectual, or dangerous. There were the drugs like thalidomide that after being declared safe by government unleashed untold misery on the world. There was the rampant abuse of surgeries like hysterectomies and radical mastectomies that are now thankfully in decline. And there were - and still are - the diagnostic tests like mammograms that have proven far less beneficial than once claimed by health authorities. The fact is that what is considered safe, effective and cost-efficient within medicine is constantly changing. It is changing far more rapidly than in the past - largely due to the impact of the internet and social media. And yes, while this too produces its share of quacks touting unsupported remedies, on balance it has been an enormous force for good. As for the suspension of unvaccinated students, exemptions are available to these people based on medical, religious and philosophical grounds. Philosophically there is a growing segment of society that eschews synthetic chemicals, surgeries and other procedures they deem unnatural, unnecessary and unproven. These include nurses who administer flu vaccines but refuse it themselves. We have to respect the right of these people to say no for themselves and their children - unless in the latter case it can be demonstrated without doubt that their children are at risk of imminent death. And if you think there is too much second guessing of these 'tried and proven' therapies, think again. Every year in the U.S. more than two million hospital patients suffer serious reactions or death from drugs prescribed and administered within the hospital setting. Some health authorities rank adverse drug reactions (ADRs) as the fourth leading cause of death.

    • Tony Rockel
      May 08, 2013 - 12:18

      With all due respect, we're not talking about some dangerous, unproven treatment here. Nor are we talking about unnecessary surgeries or diagnostic tests. This is about a proven preventive strategy that has been around since the time of Edward Jenner (1749 - 1823) and which has rid the world of the scourge of smallpox, and will soon do the same, we hope, polio. The objections raised against immunization have no scientific basis and are being propagated mainly by uninformed demagogues and scamsters who have a product to sell.

  • Tony Rockel
    May 08, 2013 - 10:09

    Yes, we can thank "experts" like Jenny McCarthy and their devoted followers for this unfolding disaster. See jennymccarthybodycount.com: the score at present is 115,057 preventable illnesses and 1147 preventable deaths because of parents being afraid to immunize their children. We have almost 2 generations of people who never knew what it was like to endure the misery and serious complications of childhood infectious diseases.

  • Ed Power
    May 08, 2013 - 08:49

    There are many webpages and FB pages dedicated to revealing the "conspiracies" behind the vaccine "coverup". It is a strange alternate universe, where the babbling of ex-Playboy bunnies and D-list Hollywood celebrities is given the same factual weight as centuries of scientific obversation and decades of labratory testing and feild work.