Saturday, August 30, 2008

MMR scare: It's the media's fault

Ben Goldacre continues to be one of my favourite journalists. Not having a science background, I reach to him for a bit of sanity on controversial science-based issues.

It is worth reading his article in the Guardian today. It is about the history of the MMR/autism scare and it is a stonker. He basically says that the MMR scare was the fault of the media, and, in particular, their propensity to use general journalists to comment on what was essentially a scientific matter, rather than science journalists. One particular passage relates the story behind a couple of MMR scare stories in 2006:

.."US scientists back autism link to MMR” said the Telegraph. “Scientists fear MMR link to autism” squealed the Mail.

What was this frightening new data? These scare stories were based on a poster presentation, at a conference yet to occur, on research not yet completed, by a man with a well-documented track record of announcing research that never subsequently appears in an academic journal. This time Dr Arthur Krigsman was claiming he had found genetic material from vaccine-strain measles virus in some gut samples from children with autism and bowel problems. If true, this would have bolstered Wakefield’s theory, which by 2006 was lying in tatters. We might also mention that Wakefield and Krigsman are doctors together at Thoughtful House, a private autism clinic in the US.

Two years after making these claims, the study remains unpublished.

Nobody can read what Krigsman did in his experiment, what he measured, or replicate it.

Should anyone be surprised by this? No. Krigsman was claiming in 2002 that he had performed colonoscopy studies on children with autism and found evidence of harm from MMR, to universal jubilation in the media, and this work remains entirely unpublished as well. Until we can see exactly what he did, we can’t see whether there may be flaws in his methods, as there are in all scientific papers, to a greater or lesser extent: maybe he didn’t select the subjects properly, maybe he measured the wrong things. If he doesn’t write it up formally, we can never know, because that is what scientists do: write papers, and pull them apart to see if their findings are robust.

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