Evening Standard 12/11/1996

Informed Parent Winter 1996

Sarah Miles is struggling to find the words to describe her son’s medical condition. "Robert can be incredibly attentive," she says, "but he does not wait his turn. When he talks, he talks at you."

As she tells me this, Robert, who is eight, suddenly comes flying into the drawing room in St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. He is talking animatedly but it is difficult to work out what he is saying, or to whom,

Then, emphasising each syllable, he says: "The biscuits were left out. You shouldn’t have left the biscuits out." At first the doctors thought Robert had a bad case of glue ear; then, when he was three, they diagnosed autism, now they are unsure, The headmistress at Queensmill, the special school for autistic children which he attends in Hurlingham, says Robert is "not classically autistic". And a psychiatrist who has examined Robert recently believes he has some kind of brain damage.

Sarah and her husband, Richard, a fine art and antiques dealer from Jersey, believe his condition is linked to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine he was given in December 1989 when he was 14 months old. "Within a few weeks he went from being a normal infant who was starting to walk and talk to being unbalanced and withdrawn, Then he stopped talking and began banging his head against the furniture and any other hard surface he could find. That’s when we became alarmed. It wasn’t just a child having a tantrum."

The Miles’s aren’t thé only family who believe their child’s condition may be linked to the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) or measles and rubella (MR) vaccines. With the Dept. of Health’s latest campaign for the MMR jab in full swing, more than 400 families are seeking compensation and have approached lawyers in Norfolk.

Their children’s complaints range from epilepsy, to arthritis to Crohn’s disease, a debilitating condition in which the lining of the bowel is destroyed -

virtually unheard of before the 1950s. But the most common complaint of all -in 85 cases - is autism.

"The official Dept. of Health position is that these vaccines are 100 per cent safe," says solicitor Richard Barr, a partner in the law firm, Dawbarns.

"But we have evidence that there are many side effects. All the children we are helping are now ill or disabled. All have had the MMR or MR vaccine and in the vast majority of cases there is no event other than the vaccination which could account for the injury."

So far, Dawbarns has obtained legal aid to prepare medical reports on 100 children, including Robert. Although no one can be certain the vaccinations are to blame, studies by Dr Andrew Wakefield, at the Royal Free Hospital, Hampstead, suggest that up to one in 100 vaccinated children could develop Crown’s disease by the age of 45. He has urged the Dept. of Health to set up a surveillance system to monitor side effects in the wake of its jab campaigns. But the department argues that the risk of brain damage from contracting measles far outweighs the known risks of the vaccines.

Indeed, it was because of medical fears of a new measles epidemic that the department launched a campaign in 1994 to give eight million schoolchildren the MR jab. And last month, the Government launched its latest vaccination drive aimed at giving children under four years a further MMR jab.

Richard Miles insists he and his wife are not opposed to vaccination. Their youngest son, Henry, five, had the MR jab four years ago and has suffered no ill effects. Likewise their eldest daughter Kate, 11, was also vaccinated and is perfectly healthy.

However, Sara Miles says that in hindsight she wouldn’t have had any of her children vaccinated. "The problem is that at the time no one warned me of the possible side effects. At first I felt terrible anger and guilt. It was only later that I realised that the medical profession was in the dark too." As she says this, Robert comes running back into the room to vent his frustration about a missing Halloween mask. He moves restlessly from adult to adult, clambering over legs and furniture. After years of speech therapy his verbal skills are now on a par with his brother Henry’s, who is three years younger. But his social skills are poor. "He wouldn’t deliberately try to hit someone but he can be quite violent in a playful way," says Mrs Miles. "For instance, Robert wouldn’t ask another child if he wanted to play Power Rangers, he would just lay into him, whereas Henry would always ask first."

To provide Robert with the necessary care and support, Mrs Miles had to give up her job at a textile design firm and employ a full-time nanny. When Robert began special language training at the age of two-and-a-half, Mrs Miles says the therapist warned her that she should regard Robert as "an alien from outer space". "He did not have the ability to read the most basic body language. It is only because of the most intensive therapy that he now approaches anything like normal behaviour." Was the vaccine to blame?

In 1992, the Chief Medical Officer withdrew the particular brand of the MMR vaccine Robert had been given on the grounds that the mumps element was associated with higher incidences of "mild transient meningitis" than had previously been thought.

However, Dawbarns argues that the health department has also underestimated the side effects of the measles and rubella element of the MMR vaccine, as well as the side effects of the MR vaccine which replaced it.

According to the Miles’s GP, who has treated Robert continually since birth, his development seemed normal up until the time he received the jab in 1989. His view is that "there is a strong link between the date of giving the MMR to Robert and his change of behaviour".

Whatever view the courts take, Dawbarns argues that it is high time the government took their concerns seriously and monitored the side effects of jabs properly.

"What worries me is that! am convinced mainstream doctors aren’t taking the warning seriously enough," says Richard Miles.

Mark Honigsbaum