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Mumps: why UK cases have soared in the wake of the 90s movement against the MMR vaccine

The i logo The i 14/02/2020
Andrew Wakefield et al. standing in front of a crowd posing for the camera © Provided by The i

The numbers of mumps cases in the last year is the highest in a decade, Public Health England has revealed.

Outbreaks across universities shows that there were 5,042 lab-confirmed cases of mumps in England in 2019, compared to 1,066 in 2018. This is nearly five times as many as those the year before.

Many of the cases are said to be down to the 'Wakefield cohort' - the children of anti-vaccine parents who supported Andrew Wakfield's 1998 paper which linked autism to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This generation of children were not vaccinated as a result and are now old enough to be at college and university where they can develop and spread the illness.

a close up of a bottle © Provided by The i

Mumps is a viral infection that used to be common in children before the introduction of the MMR vaccine, and is most recognisable by the painful swollen glands at the side of the face.  It can be passed through saliva, and through actions such as sneezing or sharing a drink with a person who has the infection, and in some cases can lead to viral meningitis.

Anti-vax movement

Why is Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study impacting public health now? (Photo: Getty)

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the rise was another example of the "long-term damage caused by anti-vax information".

"Science proves that vaccines are the best form of defence against a host of potentially deadly diseases and are safer and more effective than ever before. Those who claim otherwise are risking people’s lives."

Andrew Wakefield's 1998 paper, which has been widely discredited, suggested there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. He is now barred from practicing as a physician in the UK, and lives in the US where he continues to have a cult following, many of whom are prominent celebrities such as American television host Jenny McCarthy.

While there were reasons parents chose not to vaccine their children before his research, such as religion, this has widely been seen as a pivotal moment in creating an anti-vaccine movement, whereby a community of parents were unified in their distrust of immunisation because of the so-called evidence.

The study only examined 12 patients, and was shown to have multiple flaws. In 2004, this came to a head when Wakefield was accused of a conflict of interest, as a Sunday Times piece reported that some of the parents of the 12 children in his study were recruited by a UK lawyer preparing a lawsuit against MMR manufacturers, and the Royal Free Hospital had additionally received £55,000 from a legal body for the research.

The General Medical Council, an independent regulator for doctors in the UK, later found that Wakefield had a "fatal conflict of interest".

In 2010, the Lancet formally retracted the paper after the British General Medical Council ruled against Wakefield in several areas and in 2011, the BMJ published a series of reports by journalist Brian Deer outlining evidence that Mr Wakefield had committed scientific fraud by falsifying data. He also found that he had hoped to financially profit from his study in several ways.

The result

The impacts were not immediately obvious but Mr Wakefield had catalysed a distrust in vaccines that would be, and continues to be, seen in public health. While the drop in vaccination rates were noted at the time, now we are seeing those health impacts play out.

Following his research, MMR vaccination in the UK plummeted from above 90 per cent to 79 per cent in January 2003.

In 2006 a 13-year-old-boy from Manchester became the first UK death from measles for 14 years. That same year England and Wales saw 450 measles cases, making it the highest numbers seen in two decades.

Even today MMR vaccine rates are not as high as the WHO recommended 95 per cent, with latest NHS statistics saying national coverage for the second jab is 86 per cent.

These statistics are not solely down to Mr Wakefield's findings but are an accumulation of multiple things such as social media companies' slow response to anti-vaccine content on their channels, a decline in health visitor numbers promoting and following community vaccine rates, and general vaccine hesitancy.

The reality now however is that the damage inflicted by Mr Wakefield's findings in the late 90s are leading to health repercussions now, with health bodies warning that the effects will likely continue to be seen this year.

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