Hear the Noise

Vaccinations are one of the great success stories of modern medicine – so successful, perhaps, that people have become complacent about the diseases vaccines prevent. At least, the bizarre panic over the triple jab for measles, mumps and rubella, the MMR jab, would suggest as much. Add a chronic background suspicion of science and doctors and the medical ‘establishment,’ along with the standards of evidence, peer review, accountability, rationality, statistics and risk-assesment that are fundamental to the way all three function, and you have the recipe for a full-blown attack of the irrationals.

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield, a research scientist at the Royal Free Hospital in London, published a paper showing that he had found traces of the measles virus in the intestines of 12 children with autism. Diagnosis of autism has been increasing in recent years, either because of increased incidence or because of improved diagnosis. As Ben Goldacre put it in the Guardian on December 11, ‘At a press conference, Wakefield suggested that MMR was dangerous and recommended the single vaccine,although with no real evidence to back this hunch. The panic began.’ The panic was then exacerbated further in late 2001 when Tony Blair refused to say whether or not his son Leo had had the jab, insisting that the health of his children was a private matter, and also insisting that he wouldn’t recommend any health measure for the public that he didn’t think was safe for his own children. Many people were not convinced.

Then there were reports that measles was returning to Britain, and the decline in the uptake of the MMR jab was thought to be the reason. One in five hundred cases of measles is fatal.

And now, in case that’s not enough of a problem, along come the entertainment industry to make things worse. A ‘docudrama,’ a fictionalized dramatized story about the mother of an autistic child and her search for reasons for his autism, her struggle with the callous brutal medical establishment, and her relief at finally finding Andrew Wakefield. A familiar pattern, naturally; the entertainment industry loves familiar patterns. This story combines elements of ‘Lorenzo’s Oil’ and ‘Erin Brockovitch,’ with dashes of ‘Not Without my Daughter,’ ‘Mask,’ and such – there is just nothing quite like a fierce impassioned mother battling a pack of cold heartless unmaternal enemies to save or cure or vindicate Her Child. And if fierce impassioned mother is played by Juliet Stevenson, well, say no more. Obviously she can’t possibly be wrong about whatever it is she’s impassioned about, because she’s so strong and brave and beautiful and good.

But alas however strong, brave, beautiful and good she is, there is much reason to think she is wrong, and almost none to think she is right. To quote Ben Goldacre again: ‘There’s a huge amount of research showing no link between MMR and autism, and no new type of autism, and no effect of immunisation on bowels; and there’s very, very little to suggest a link between MMR and autism.’ Researchers have tried to replicate Wakefield’s results, and had very little success. And it’s not as if it doesn’t matter – it’s not as if one might as well skip the jab to be on the safe side. Skipping it is not safe, it’s very dangerous. And yet apparently the people who made this tv show have no qualms about using all the arts of the screenwriter and actor to persuade people that this vaccination is dangerous. The irresponsibility is quite remarkable.

Organisations representing children’s doctors and nurses had joined forces to denounce a decision by Channel 5 to screen Hear The Silence, tomorrow night. Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Royal Colleges representing paediatricians and nurses warned that the programme was ‘reckless and irresponsible’, and could lead to a fall in the uptake of immunisation against measles, mumps and rubella…The charity Sense, which represents families whose children have become deaf or blind as a result of rubella, criticised her for her remarks. Stephen Rooney said: ‘Juliet Stevenson has no scientific or medical expertise and yet has given a number of interviews in which she has called into question the safety of the vaccine.’ But a spokesman for Channel 5 said last night that the actor had every right to make her views known. ‘Juliet Stevenson has never claimed to be a medical expert. She is expressing her views as a mother.’

Her views as a mother. No matter how ill-informed, how mistaken, how disregarding of evidence and statistics and probabilities, and how dangerous to other people – they are her views as a mother playing a mother, so they are sacrosanct. And as for the views of Channel 5 and the producers and screenwriter of Hear the Silence – well, no doubt they are the views of people in the entertainment industry in general. It’s a good story, people will watch it (especially now, with all this free publicity), it’s entertaining, it’s touching. What more is there to say?

Ophelia Benson

Internal Resources

Feisty mothers

Emotionally biased

Lorenzo’s oil redux

What Silence?

External Resources

  • Article in BMJ
    Article in the British Medical Journal finds no link between jab and autism.
  • Ben Goldacre on the Facts
    Keep his article at hand when you watch the show.
  • Channel 5 Defends Actor
    ‘She is expressing her views as a mother.’
  • Children’s Lives Could Be Put at Risk
    Doctors call drama one-sided and highly irresponsible.
  • David Aaronovitch
    ‘During the last, relatively mild, outbreak of measles, in the late 1980s, 17 children are estimated to have died.’
  • Doctors Boycott Drama
    Senior doctors decline to debate MMR jab following tv drama on the subject.
  • Don’t Show It
    Doctors say Channel Five film is inaccurate and could cost lives of children.
  • Drama Increases Fears of Jab
    ‘A lot of people don’t have the jabs now, and I think that number will grow following this programme, and that could mean a more serious outbreak of measles in the future.’
  • Juliet Stevenson Speaks Out
    Doesn’t want to be told the fears are nonsense. [subscription]
  • Letters to the Guardian
    ‘…a snowball of conjecture and innuendo has lead us to a wholly unacceptable scenario today where MMR immunisation rates have now fallen to 84% nationally.’
  • Mark Lawson on ‘Hear the Silence’
    ‘If you walked into a doctor’s surgery looking as lopsided as this drama, you would be sent for emergency orthopaedic surgery at once.’
  • The Facts
    The National Health Service offers a wealth of information.

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