Notoriety is no defense

The Guardian’s Health Editor Sarah Boseley is an individual who I find generally fair, non-sensationalist and accurate on the reporting of health issues. Today she reports on the forthcoming Wakefield GMC trial and notes one possible problem with the proceedings.

The GMC hearings, scheduled to last 14 weeks, are likely to reignite an impassioned debate which the public health community had hoped would fade away.

I have some sympathy with this view. For MMR vacccination rates, no news is good news. The manner in which reporting of MMR vaccine safety concerns has been carried out, means that even a study refuting Wakefield’s flawed claims (good news) allows the media to dig up the alternative theory and the same old voices from the anti-vaccine movement (bad news). A sprinkling of pseudo-science is served up again, with an added whiff of conspiracy theory, and the element of doubt is seeded in parents’ minds.

However, the point is that disciplinary procedures of regulatory bodies must treat both the notorious and the eminent in the same way. Just as Roy Meadow found his clear eminence in the field of paediatrics no protection; Wakefield’s notoriety should not be a reason for sparing him from scrutiny.

The MP and doctor Evan Harris, who has been excellent throughout the long debate over MMR vaccine, is correct when he states:

“There are huge benefits to be had from justice being done and being seen to be done and ensuring that medical researchers, particularly where there are litigants and children involved, are clear about their responsibilities,”

“We can’t allow fear of misreporting of MMR matters to prevent the proper disciplinary procedures being taken against anyone.”