As most of our British readers have no doubt heard, last month the UK Department of Health announced the hasty withdrawal of two brands of the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Pharmacies have been told to discontinue Immravax, manufactured by Merieux, and Pluserix, manufactured by SmithKline Beecham. All orders for this particular vaccine will be fulfilled by the MMR II, produced by Merck Sharp and Dohme and distributed by Wellcome.The official line circulated to the press about why these drugs were withdrawn, after having been jabbed into millions of 15 month olds, is the results of a study showing that the two withdrawn brands have a negligible (1 in 11,000 ) risk of causing a "transient" and "mild" (all DOH words, these) case of meningitis. The MMR II, made from a different strain,
supposedly does not pose this risk.
This news was greeted by a good deal of cheering in the offices of WDDTY, since we have noisily protested this vaccine as unsafe from our very first issue.
Our celebrations were shortlived, however, as we observed the decidedly docile press coverage of this event. Virtually every paper and TV station dutifully printed the standard party line about the problem not being very severe and the remaining vaccine being perfectly safe. And not a single reporter stopped to ask : if this vaccine, herded in amid a blazing publicity campaign four years ago, was so hastily withdrawn, how "mild" and "rare" could this side effect be?
We then observed a curious bit of arithmetic, which happens whenever medicine needs to justify a bad call: the turning of a benign problem into a life threatening illness by the manipulation of statistics. When I was preparing our first issue about MMR in 1989, I interviewed Dr Norman Begg, of the Public Health Laboratory Service, which recommended the vaccine in Britain. He assured me that mumps is a very mild illness in children. Now, however, we hear from Chief Medical Officer Dr Kenneth Calman that mumps leads on to meningitis in 1 in 400 cases.
In other words, because mumps is a dangerous illness, taking the old unsafe vaccine was still better than getting the disease itself. How long will it be before we start hearing about the latest killer of children: athlete's foot?