You can’t believe everything you read

Peter Jackson
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Measles is a nasty disease. The virus causes fever, runny nose, red eyes and irritability. Then come the white spots inside the mouth and throat, followed by a blotchy rash on the face that spreads down the body.

It can cause complications such as pneumonia and brain infection. According to Health Canada, on average, one or two cases of measles per thousand will result in death, but that number can rise as high as 30 in underdeveloped countries.

It’s a miserable affliction. Today, however, it’s completely preventable.

So, why is this highly contagious disease making a comeback?

An outbreak in B.C.’s Fraser Valley reached more than 400 confirmed cases last week. Health officials hope the worst is over there, but outbreaks have also occurred in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario.

In the U.S., measles cases are at their highest level for this time of year since 1996, but for various reasons, the U.S. is better prepared to handle such outbreaks. The tally throughout the whole country is about 130 cases.

Britain has been hit hard over the past few years. In 2012, there were 2,030 reported cases throughout the U.K., and 1,413 last year.

This is not surprising, since Britain was the epicentre of one of the most misguided health scares of our times — one that is primarily behind this measles resurgence.

It was fuelled by a small British study in 1998 that purported to link the mumps, measles and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease in children.

The study, led by Andrew Wakefield, seemed to back claims by many alternative medicine advocates that vaccines are dangerous.

As it turns out, the study looked at only 12 subjects, and was riddled with missteps and biases. From 2004 to 2010, the flaws were gradually unravelled in articles by Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer.

Medical authorities finally conducted their own investigation, and Wakefield was stripped of his right to practise medicine in Britain. The journal that published the 1998 study, The Lancet, ran a full retraction.

By that point, however, the damage was done. Yet author Dr. Ben Goldacre says Wakefield himself was not the main culprit.

“The media are fingering the wrong man,” Goldacre wrote in his book “Bad Science,” “and they know who should really take the blame: in MMR, journalists and editors have constructed their greatest hoax to date, and finally demonstrated that they can pose a serious risk to public health.”

At least two important studies conducted after Wakefield’s report refuted his key premises, says Goldacre, yet no mainstream media outlet in Britain reported on them.

When then British prime minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie refused to confirm whether they’d vaccinated their baby in 2001, speculation spread like wildfire.

The public clings to drama and celebrity more readily than to dry facts.

“Emotive anecdotes from distressed parents were pitted against old men in corduroy with no media training,” wrote Goldacre.

“Newspapers and celebrities began to use the vaccine as an opportunity to attack the government and the health service, and of course it was the perfect story, with a charismatic maverick fighting against the system, a Galileo-like figure. There were elements of risk, of awful personal tragedy, and of course, the question of blame: whose fault was autism?”

The current cases in B.C. actually originated with a religious group. But for the most part, the troubling return of measles and other preventable diseases is a result of media hype.

Unfortunately, no amount of rational discourse will fully dispel old fears. To this day, Wakefield still peddles his nonsense to unbending believers.

The message? Take media reports on medical research with a grain of salt.

Sometimes it takes a long process of peer review to ferret out the real truth.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor.


Organizations: Health Canada

Geographic location: Britain, B.C., U.S. Fraser Valley Alberta Saskatchewan Manitoba Galileo

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