Last year there was a surge of measles in England and Wales and already this year health authorities in South Wales and the north east of England are reporting spikes in cases of a disease that had been on its way out – thanks to the success of the MMR vaccine says NHS Choices.
A causal link can’t definitively be made with the Wakefield case in 1998 and the way, then and since certain media – notoriously the Daily Mail – have campaigned against immunization. But rates of vaccination did slip, probably because parents had read and believed reports linking MMR to autism. There’s more here about the disease.
It’s a sorry tale. Some people put more credence in anti-science commentators more interested in sensation than public enlightenment than they did in their own GPs or in trusted websites such as NHS Choices. The work of scientists that consistently found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been ignored.
What the episode proves, yet again, is how important basic statistical literacy is – meaning a broader public understanding of the fundamentals of risk appraisal, and a capacity to take significance from numbers. Whether it’s parents, editors or commentators ignorance matters: real harm results from a failure to see what the stats are saying. The trouble is, even if statistical education were better and more journalists given training in dealing with data and numbers, some people would ignore evidence. And some others would follow ideological agenda, even at the expense of children’s comfort and wellbeing.