Saturday, 16 October 2010

MMR, Autism and Poor Science Reporting

The Australian Vaccination Network have this week tweeted that evidence supporting Andrew Wakefield and his discredited Autism/MMR study had been published.

In fact, the article being touted by the AVN as new information is a four year old story published in the Mail on Sunday.  Not only is it four years out of date, but the research on which the article is based does not relate to a link between autism and the MMR, but because of sloppy journalism, you could be forgiven for believing it did.

With the title "Scientists fear MMR link to autism", Sally Beck, whose work includes other autism related stories, such as "I helped my son beat Autism by giving up Weetabix", illustrates just how badly science journalism can be done.

The immediate problem that I spotted was that the article was the claim that:

    "New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link."

When in fact, what the scientist, Dr Walker was quoted as saying was:

   "[Wakefield's] study didn’t draw any conclusions about specifically what it means to find measles virus in the gut, but the implication is it may be coming from the MMR vaccine. If that’s the case, and this live virus is residing in the gastrointestinal tract of some children, and then they have GI inflammation and other problems, it may be related to the MMR"

The way in which Ms Beck has written, suggests that the link is between the MMR triple vaccine and autism, as well as bowel disease. In fact, what has been claimed is that there is a possible link between the MMR and gastrointestinal problems, in children with autism.  This may seem pedantic, but many readers may not be able to make that distinction.

In many cases this would be a trivial error, but in this case it has far reaching, dangerous repercussions.  This article has been linked to and referenced on numerous websites, used to defend Wakefield and to spread the message that vaccines are unsafe.

Ms Beck's poor choice of sentence structure aside, the interpretation of the research seems flawed.  After searching for more information, the only available source which seemed to relate to the article is a poster submitted in 2006 to the International Meeting for Autism Research.

As the AVN were linking to this article as new information, it appeared that Ms Beck had not only misinterpretated research, she had used work that was four years old.

Dr Walker, the quoted scientist, when asked if there was some as yet unpublished work that this article was based on, replied saying:


    This story is not current. It was written by Sally in 2006 following a presentation of an abstract that I did at IMFAR (International Meeting for Autism Research) in Montreal. The final peer-reviewed article has not been written, mainly due to an inability to get appropriate control samples to complete the study. And you are exactly right - we were thinking the data might be indicative of a possible link between MMR and gut problems, not MMR and autism.

    Hope that helps.

    best regards,

 The science was in fact current in 2006 - when the article was published.  It was only by looking at the comments attached to the article that it became apparent the Mail on Sunday did not display the date the article was published.  Is this responsible journalism?  This leads anyone who reads the article and does not look past the page on which it is displayed, to believe the article was current, as I did.

The Australian Vaccination Network claim to aim to help parents make informed choices, yet they are disseminating information which is four years out of date and inaccurate. An organisation claiming to inform parents about vaccines has a responsibility to check the information they give out, and should be held to account when the quality of the information they disseminate is poor.  I contacted the AVN for comment, but they have not responded.

The funny thing is the research in question is actually suggesting a detrimental effect of the triple MMR vaccine.  Completed and published, it will be interesting to see if this research does show a significant effect.

Judging from their twitter feed, the AVN appear to be more interested in presenting any piece of information that supports their anti-vaccination position, rather than finding and informing people of the truth.  So if this research does come out in favour of vaccinations, will the AVN will be as quick to correct itself as it was to demand Wakefield’s exoneration? 

When the time comes, you can expect a follow up article evaluating the findings and the AVN’s response.  But unlike the AVN’s approach to research and Ms Beck and the Mail’s approach to science journalism, whether it says good things about vaccines or bad, it will be reported on this blog with an open mind, with clear language and without sensationalist claims.
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  1. I'm so glad you are still researching into the MMR and I am following with interest. As you know my argument is still from the point of choice, one choice being no choice and parents should have the right to decide between triple, single and no vaccine, but it will still be interesting to see what you finally discover.

  2. I have edited and rejigged this post to get rid of silly errors and to make it a bit more reader friendly!