July 2, 2009

The rather extended metaphor got subbed out, but a lot of the geekery stayed in…

Tom Whipple

The Times

Imagine that Britain is one large version of Grand Theft Auto. Imagine now that the media is a spotty 14 year-old, happily mowing down pedestrians on a gleeful shooting spree. For almost a decade, from 1997 to 2004, newspapers cheerfully spread the idea that the MMR vaccine caused autism. They trumpeted compelling anecdotes from teary Islington mothers, made fun of those silly science boffins in white coats, and sold a lot of papers. The game was fun.
Then something they hadn’t thought of happened: in 2004, in the real world, MMR uptake dropped to 80 per cent of two year-olds – from 92 per cent in 1997. Doctors – including one of those who had originally posited the autism link – warned that children were at risk of dying. The game, it seemed, was interactive. The pedestrians were real and it wasn’t so much fun.

Since 2004, broadly speaking, newspapers have accepted they went too far. Stories about MMR are now more likely to rubbish a link with autism, and papers have congratulated themselves on being responsible. But has it worked? Can papers be a force for public good, as well as bad?

In 1997, 17 articles in the UK mentioned MMR. In 2004 there were 1442. If you plot this data against the uptake of MMR, there is a very strong negative correlation (-0.73, for the geeks). This implies, as you would expect, that the more the media question the jab, the fewer people take it. Since 2004, you would expect something different. If more articles supported the scientific line, then the correlation should change. It should move closer towards zero.

What has happened? Well, in the last five years MMR uptake has slightly increased. But there has also been a corresponding decrease in the number of articles. In fact the correlation between the two is almost unchanged from before (-0.82). This is not good. One obvious conclusion is, it doesn’t matter what the articles say: the more there are, the worse it is for MMR uptake.
Last month we learnt that there is a measles outbreak in Wales. The temptation is for newspapers to start writing about MMR again but this time to encourage vaccination. Perhaps, though, the best thing we can do about it is just shut up.