From first chapter of Fear of the Invisible...
A measles epidemic loomed - or did it? How fear was used to motivate parents
Like most of us, I had never thought to question why viruses are such a terrible threat to us - despite friends dying of AIDS in the 1980s. Medical matters were safe in the hands of medical authorities - or so I presumed up until recent years. Viruses I had learnt were horrible germs, invading, hijacking, competing with us for life - but in truth I knew little about them.
Other issues then absorbed me as an investigative journalist. When President Ronald Reagan's Administration announced the discovery of HIV in 1984, calling it a great ‘triumph of US science', I was out in the deserts of Australia making a film about the Aboriginal struggle for justice and land. When Oprah Winfrey predicted that a million Americans would soon die of AIDS, I was helping expose secret links between the Reagan Administration and Iran's Ayatollahs. When the US Government failed to keep its promise to soon have a vaccine for HIV, I was making a series for television about the worldwide diamond industry that led to an invitation to testify about blood diamonds at an US Congressional Hearing
But out of the blue in 1994 I received a phone call from a parent asking for help. Her apparently healthy baby had become severely brain damaged within days of having a Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) injection. She wondered if the vaccine had played a role in this. If it had, I thought it must be a rare side effect. Well, this was not my normal area of expertise, but I had some skills in document retrieval and logical analysis, so I set to work to discover what I could, but with no great expectations.
Shortly after this, the UK government's Department of Health issued a series of terrifying national emergency health warnings, stating there would ‘definitely' soon be a deadly measles epidemic infecting between 100,000 and 200,000 British children and that ‘around 50 children, mostly of secondary school age, would die' - that is, if all children ‘between 5 and 15' were not immediately revaccinated. This panicked both parents and children. Those with children of 4 or 16 besieged the Health Services, begging for their children to be also revaccinated lest they might die,
During the following nation-wide vaccination program for measles and rubella, the normal safeguards were suspended. The requirement that only a doctor should give the rubella vaccine was lifted, as also was the requirement to tell girls of childbearing age of the danger the rubella vaccine carries for any unborn child. Not warning them would be faster - and not using doctors cheaper. It was justified because of the predicted oncoming deadly measles epidemic.
I applauded this campaign. It was a sign that our health authorities were ready to nip any danger in the bud. But then I read that a Dr Richard Nicholson, the Editor of the prestigious ‘Bulletin of Medical Ethics', was highly critical. He said there were no emergency and no need to panic families. I went to see him to discover why.
He explained; ‘There was no talk of an impending measles epidemic a year ago. On the contrary, the leading UK government scientists reported that measles was practically extinct, that nearly everyone in England was now immune to measles.'
‘But,' I asked, ‘Why then did they call for this campaign?'
He explained that the World Health Organisation (WHO) was trying to drive the measles virus into extinction and that governments were competing for the honour of being the first country to achieve this. This lead to UK Government scientists publishing a year ago a paper saying that, to fulfil the WHO target, they must find a way to motivate a population no longer scared of measles into having an extra vaccination. This paper did not predict an epidemic - but the very reverse. It said nearly everyone was already immune.
Dr. Nicholson thus could not find any proof that a major measles epidemic was immanent. He told me that the government's estimate of up to 50 deaths in an impending epidemic was based on an ‘improper use of statistics.'
I went out to interview an author of the above paper, a Dr Elizabeth Miller, at the major Government medical research centre in Colindale, a London suburb, and asked her why was the government predicting that up to 50 might die of measles?
She replied: ‘We were faced with an unprecedented crisis. Before the development of vaccines, there was no risk for measles in our schools. All school children were immune to measles for life, but this is no longer true.'
I was perplexed and asked ‘Why are these children now more vulnerable?' I had presumed MMR gave our school children a protection they did not have before.
She explained that the vaccine uses a measles virus that is weakened, ‘attenuated' so it won't give measles, but this also meant it was to weak to give a guaranteed ‘life-long immunity.' In fact, the immunity it gave might not last more than five years. Thus children vaccinated in infancy might no longer be protected when still at school. So it was a trade-off - no measles as infants - and more vulnerability to measles in later life. This seemed reasonable, but I still needed to know how vulnerable this had left our older children. I asked again how they worked out that 50 children might die in the predicted epidemic?
She explained: ‘This unprecedented new situation has forced us to adopt a mathematical model with a wide range of variables. This predicts deaths in the range of none to fifty.'
I was astonished. A range of 0 to 50 did not make 50 deaths likely. It was merely one end of a speculative range. Their prediction was based on unproven ‘unprecedented' facts. This told us nothing. No wonder Dr Nicholson had scathingly reported both ‘statistical manipulation' and scaremongering.
A World Health Organisation ‘virus extermination' goal had thus led to UK government virologists organising a fear-based campaign that frightened children and parents to achieve its ends. I hoped similar tactics were not being employed around the world. It also seemed totally unrealistic. The UK might be an island nation - but it has millions of visitors every year, every one of who could reintroduce the virus.
.............................. ... from later on in the same chapter....
I then arranged for questions to be asked in the UK Parliament - hoping this way to get some facts. I asked how many cases of measles the health authorities believed their campaign had averted - and how many cases of illness suspected to result from these vaccinations had been reported by doctors to the government.
I was amazed by the answer.
The Government reported that the campaign had averted an estimated 170 cases of measles; that is, not dangerous cases requiring hospitalisation, just cases of illness, Typically 170 measles cases would include just one or two so serious that they required hospitalisation.
But doctors had reported over 2,500 cases of illness as possibly side effects of this campaign, with over 500 of these so serious that the child had to be admitted to hospital! Since UK government research shows doctors typically only report one in ten cases of possible side effects, since most will presume vaccines to be harmless, these results meant that the MR vaccination campaign had resulted in up to 25,000 cases of illness potentially caused by vaccination, with over 500 in hospital - as against an estimated 170 cases of measles avoided.
I knew the real figures were likely to be much worse, for the government had excluded from these statistics all possible cases where the illness developed slowly and all cases of illness during pregnancy that might have been caused by the rubella vaccine.
I wondered why so many side effects, so went to the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine to see if they had any explanation. They arranged for me to speak on the phone with their top expert in the US, Dr Maurice Hilleman, the internationally renowned specialist who developed the MMR vaccine.
I said to him ‘I understand this vaccine is made up of living viruses that you have so weakened so they will not make the child ill, but not so weakened that they will not give the child immunity. It must be difficult to so exactly weaken viruses?'
‘Exactly, you have hit the nail on the head.' he replied.
I then queried, ‘Do you have any guidelines for doing this?'
‘Yes,' he said, ‘Twenty percent.'
I did not understand this very brief answer so asked him to explain.
He replied: ‘If only 20% of the children fall ill from the vaccine, that is judged acceptable.'
When I gasped with surprise, he quickly added, ‘Oh I don't mean seriously ill. Just lightly ill.'
I next interviewed the top British expert on immunisation at London University, Professor Michael Stewart of the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I asked him; ‘Some parents are telling me they suspect their children have been made ill as a consequence of vaccination. Are their fears groundless?'
I nearly fell off my chair when he replied: ‘What else would you expect? We all know the current childhood vaccines containing living viruses are dangerous. That is why I am heading up a team to develop safer vaccines.' He went on to explain that, with living viruses, there was always potential for some to mutate or to be insufficiently attenuated for safe use in the vaccine.
I then interviewed some of the parents who believed their child had been damaged by the MR vaccination campaign in the UK.
Karen was the mother of a large family in Essex in eastern England. She was extremely proud of her 12-year-old son ‘Sam.' Before this vaccination campaign he was ‘ridiculously healthy, He never had anything wrong with him, a part from some mild asthma, was doing well at school and loved football. He was an avid Spurs fan.'
But, when she received notice of the November inoculation campaign, she wrote asking if it would be safe for him, given his asthma and that another child of hers was epileptic? She was told not to worry. But: ‘Four weeks later, coming down the stairs, his knees suddenly gave way and he tumbled down. He kept on falling.'
She continued: ‘Sometimes, when I was talking to him, he would suddenly go blank. I accused him of being on drugs. Two months later we were in Great Ormond Street Children's hospital where they tested him for every disease. Then one doctor said to me: "Has he been exposed to measles?" I said; "No, Sam has never had measles." The doctor replied; "No, I meant, has he had a recent measles injection?" Then I clicked. All this had started after the vaccination.'
... and the story continues, detailing how many boys also fell severely ill from the rubella vaccine used...
The woman who asked for my help was Jackie Fletcher. She went on to found a parents' vaccination support group now known as JABS - and she can now remarkably hold her own in arguments with government regulatory scientists on many a leading BBC news program.