Take your mind back to 1998 – the year the two-pound coin was introduced in Britain, the year DVDs made their debut and the year Andrew Wakefield was involved in one of the most scandalous examples of science journalism to date.
During the late 1990s, Andrew Wakefield and 12 other researchers published fraudulent research highlighting an apparent link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
This ‘research’ sent mainstream news media into overdrive, publishing the falsified results extensively and encouraging parents to avoid vaccinating their children with the MMR vaccine. This had the desired effect and resulted in a substantial decline of vaccination rates amongst children – leading to several preventable deaths from subsequent mumps and measles epidemics.
An injection of distrust
Wakefield’s research was in fact highly biased, featuring only a small sample of 12 autistic children throughout his study. He also subjected the children involved to unnecessary, painful invasive medical procedures without any ethical approval.
The aim of his falsified research was to create an association between vaccines and autism, to gain publicity and further his medical funding – and boy, did the media fall for it.
By the time the truth was revealed about his research, following a thorough investigation by Brian Deer at The Sunday Times, the media’s influence in broadcasting Wakefield’s claims had almost irreversibly damaged the public’s perception of vaccines.
Even to this day, the public remain distrustful of vaccines, which has caused a potential re-emergence of certain previously controlled diseases, including tuberculosis.
Science and the media can therefore be enemies to each other: scientists can make fabricated claims that the media broadcast to the public, while the media can misrepresent research through sensational claims, tarnishing public perception. It is important to overcome this and ensure that science is received by the public in an accessible and accurate format.
The Trump card
Rather worryingly, despite the numerous failed attempts to replicate Wakefield’s work and prove the damaging reputation of vaccines, large numbers of people, including the President of the USA, remain convinced that his research is, in fact, viable – 19 years after it first came out, and 13 years after it was proved false.
This kind of ignorance and refusal of scientific expertise is so damaging.
Vaccines have proved over and over again that they offer a vital, fundamental defence against disease. Without them, the global population as a whole would only be more susceptible to disease.
If we and our leaders, as an international society, cannot understand that for ourselves, and learn to appreciate scientific, peer-reviewed evidence, then we risk exposing ourselves to increasing epidemics of fatal, yet avoidable, diseases.