After years of dithering, Richard McComb explains why he finally pressed ahead with MMR jabs for his children.
We umm-ed and ahh-ed for years but in the end we did it, or rather I did it: I gave our youngest daughter the MMR jab.
OK, I didn’t actually plunge the needle in – a nurse did that – but I had the final say-so, in a “on your head be it” basis.
Livvy had the first inoculation at whatever age it is children are meant to have these things. We never got round to the all-important second top-up injection and kept putting it off, and off, and off.
The reason why we waited so long – and left our little girl, now aged nine, vulnerable to measles (meaning, potentially, pneumonia, fits, brain swelling, meningitis and mortal danger) – was because of a load of unsubstantiated, scare-mongering mumbo jumbo dressed up as “medical research”.
Now, even at the best of times the findings of so-called clinical studies have to be taken with a large pinch of salt. One day marshmallows are “proven” to cure such-and-such an illness; the next day, another set of scientists reveals that bingeing on spongy, sugary confectionary will make your nose drop off.
Most of the time, this jousting for headlines by rival researchers does not cause any great harm and ensures that health reporters can be gainfully employed. However, the MMR scare is of a different order.
Ever since it was suggested there was a link between the triple vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) and autism, the rates of uptake have dropped dramatically.
The latest figures, published just last week by the Health Protection Agency, show the number of measles cases in England and Wales has topped 1,000 in a year for the first time since 1995. This is despite the wholesale trashing of the MMR-autism link. Similar links between MMR and bowel disease in children have also been debunked. The Lancet, which published the original research, admits it screwed up.
Oddly, the hideous consequences of non-vaccination and the lack of evidence supporting any MMR/autism association has not been enough to boost immunisation rates.
And so, in the same way that we cannot completely rule out life on Mars – because no one has NOT seen that there AREN’T little green men with pointy heads – large numbers of parents have taken it upon themselves to persist in pursuing the “what if …” approach to child immunisation. I should know, I’ve been there, I’ve listened to the niggling doubt: “What if this discredited research really does prove to be right all along?”
The train of thought is, of course, bonkers and reminds one of the policy applied to the detection of witches in medieval times – if the accused
floated, she was a witch (in which case, she could be burnt at the stake); and if she didn’t float, it proved she was innocent all along (but unfortunately we’d have drowned her during the judicial process). These, remember, were the days before “no-win no-fee” law firms got on the compensation gravy train. My wife won’t harangue me – all right, she probably will – for saying she is borderline “trial by drowning” when it comes to the MMR issue.
Our eldest daughter had both inoculations without any trouble but our youngest, apparently, was withdrawn and “not herself” after having had the first jab. I don’t remember any of this because at the time I was at work too much and I wasn’t at home enough (and this is a little piece of guilt I carry around with me to this day, as most fathers do).
And so we never got around to having the necessary MMR booster for Livvy. I dug my heels in and said it was potty to subject a young child to “safe” single vaccinations, rather than the combined jab. I continue to question the motives of those medical practices that do offer this service. Making a quick buck out of child inoculations – “cash for jabs” – strikes me as abhorrent, a Mugabe-esque approach to health care provision.
The MMR impasse lingered on until we received a reminder from our GP surgery a few weeks ago, saying Livvy hadn’t had her second dose of MMR.
I am not sure how we agreed to it – although I do remember uttering the phrase: “There is not a single case, anywhere in the world of a nine-year-old developing autism after the MMR jab” – but we finally had the little one MMR-ed. If it went pear-shaped, my head was on the block, which in my books is preferable to a dunking stool and worth the risk.
Whilst not relishing the prospect, Livvy wanted to have the jab, having heard about cases of measles on the Today programme while checking her share prices.
The injection experience itself wasn’t pleasant, but neither was it horrific, or even particularly distressing. I was impressed at Livvy’s maturity and resolve. She was miffed when the nurse didn’t offer her a lolly pop or an “I’ve been brave” sticker.
It was all a few weeks ago now and she is fine, trying to dodge the annual winter flu virus spread by thick parents who insist on packing their kids off to school while suffering sickness and the trots.
I now feel stupid for not having had Livvy inoculated earlier. Because parents aren’t gambling with their children’s health by subjecting them to the MMR jab – they are gambling by not having it.
I do not mean to dismiss the real concerns or experiences of parents who have children with autism and I won’t insult anyone by offering platitudes.
However, it is a fact that three million children – one in four boys and girls – have not had the necessary two doses of MMR, raising the possibility of a measles epidemic.
Should an outbreak occur, as many as 100,000 children in England could be infected with an entirely preventable disease, and of these, one in 15 – that’s several thousand – would be likely to experience serious complications.
And this really isn’t scare-mongering.
Not so long ago, when there was a risk of a bird flu pandemic (remember that one?) we collectively ran for the hills. People wore protective masks near turkey farms. The end was nigh.
It’s astonishing then that parents should worry more about sneezing geese than the health of their off-spring. For unlike bird flu, or men from Mars, measles is a question of when, not if.