Wakefield is back – and so are the mumps

Everyone is appealing this week.

In Austin, Texas,  Andrew Wakefield, the surgeon who sparked a worldwide scare over the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine (when he published research which he suggested could link the vaccine with autism), has said he will appeal against a court ruling which says he cannot sue the BMJ.

Meanwhile, British GPs are appealing to the public to check their children’s vaccination status, warning that we could be facing a surge in the cases of mumps.

In total, UK MMR uptake levels fell from above 90 per cent to less than 80 per cent after the February 1998 Lancet paper by former surgeon Andrew Wakefield claimed the vaccine was linked to the development of autism.

Wakefield’s Lancet paper, which he suggested raised a possible link between autism and MMR, was later retracted by the Lancet in 2010 and described by its editor as “utterly false.” Eventually, Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register in 2010 by the General Medical Council for serious professional misconduct, including dishonesty and unethical behaviour.

Meanwhile, instead of a generation of young men, their ability to have children nicely protected through innoculation against mumps (which can cause sterility), we are facing the prospect of these late teens and twentysomethings catching and spreading the illness – perhaps at uni or in their first job or when they meet to indulge a new passion for cycling.

They won’t just have to put up with the symptoms, as listed by NHS Choices:

  • headache
  • joint pain
  • feeling sick
  • dry mouth
  • mild abdominal pain
  • feeling tired
  • loss of appetite
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F), or above

or the worry of loss of fertility (a well-known potential complication) – but Irish doctors have already been warning of a rise in the number of cases of mumps-related orchitis which is a factor in testicular cancer.  That missed childhood jab could cost one or two young men their lives.

The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said that GPs should check adolescents’ MMR status and offer vaccination to those who have missed doses. To date, it warns, cases ‘have mainly been limited to unimmunised or partially immunised individuals’.

But the JCVI added that the immunity provided by mumps drops over time. ‘Estimates of waning immunity vary, but it may be reasonable to assume that protection from infection falls to around 60 per cent after 10-15 years,’ it said.

The subcommittee said that a ‘resurgence of mumps may be expected’ once young unimmunised adults begin university.

Appeal: Andrew Wakefield

In a wry moment of synchronicity, Wakefield himself may be experiencing a dry mouth this week too.  A Texan judge Amy Clark Meachum has thrown out Wakefield’s libel action against the BMJ, its Editor-in Chief Fiona Godlee and the investigative journalist Brian Deer has been thrown out before it reached first base, whom he was sueing over articles and editorial commentary published in January 2011, which he said accused him of “intentionally and knowingly manipulating or falsifying data and diagnoses”.

Judge Clark Meachum ruled that the case could not go ahead because the Texas courts had no jurisdiction over the three British defendants. Had the case not been thrown out for lack of jurisdiction, the BMJ’s lawyers were preparing to argue that it should be dismissed under recent legislation in Texas designed to curb meritless libel lawsuits.

Fiona Godlee said: “We have always had full confidence in what we published in the BMJ. We look forward to putting this litigation behind us.”

Wakefield told the Austin newspaper, the Austin American-Statesman, that he planned to appeal.

Let’s hope the GPs’ appeal gets heard first – and loudest.


About the Author

Victoria Lambert has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and specialises in health and medical matters. She writes for the Telegraph, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Mail and the Mail on Sunday. She contributes to Saga, Geographical and First Eleven magazines – where she is the agony aunt.

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