As fresh evidence over inoculations emerges and parents get ready to sue, Health Editor Sarah-Kate Templeton finds some experts are determined to ignore the issue
Sunday Times Sep 17 2000
Leading scientists from all over the world are gathered at two major conferences this weekend to discuss how viruses damage the immune system. One will fiercely debate a possible link between the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism. At the other, it won't even be mentioned.
Scientists have been bitterly divided over whether the MMR vaccine can cause autism and bowel disease in children since British paediatrician, Andrew Wakefield, raised fears of the link in a paper in the Lancet medical journal more than two years ago.
His findings were so contentious that it divided Wakefield's own colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital in London. But now, as Wakefield is believed to be close to publishing more convincing evidence of the danger, another expert, on the other side of the Atlantic, has reached the same conclusion.
Last weekend Dr Vijendra Singh of Utah State University told the International Public Conference on Vaccination in Virginia that his lab oratory experiments have shown that the MMR jab causes autism in some children. He says his work shows that the jab triggers an immune reaction which damages a protein in the brain, causing autism.
While Singh has been concentrating on the brain and how an adverse immune reaction can interfere with the development of the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerves in the brain, Wakefield has studied a bowel disorder which he and his team believe is associated with autism.
But now the two scientists are arriving at the same conclusions about how the combined vaccine can damage the child's immune system and cause autism.
Singh said: "This is very exciting. Wakefield and I are looking at this from different angles but we are both coming to the same conclusions."
A source close to Wakefield added: "Singh and Wakefield have started from opposite ends but they are showing the same things."
Now, further evidence to back up Wakefield's theory is expected to be published shortly. Last weekend Singh said blood tests taken from autistic children contained anti bodies, specific to the MMR vaccine, while these were not present in a control group. Wakefield's research is expected to show that biopsies taken from the gut of autistic youngsters also contain traces of the measles virus which can only have come from the MMR vaccine.
The source said: "We are getting close to the threshold of new scientific evidence. A paper is in the process of being submitted although we do not have a publication date yet. The latest tests show that the measles virus, alive in the body, is introduced by immunisation. The reason this lingers is simply because the body cannot cope properly. Wakefield will be able to make a more compelling case as a result of tests. These have been done in greater detail than at any stage in the past."
Wakefield is a well-respected reader in experimental gastroenter ology. He is regularly invited to speak at international meetings with his research published in leading journals after being submitted to expert peer review. Yet he was vilified by his own profession after his controversial suggestion that the MMR vaccination programme should be stopped and replaced with single vaccines given at intervals to give the child's immune system time to recover.
His findings are set to rock the government and fellow scientists further in the next year as they will form a central part of the evidence of legal action being taken by about 700 legally-aided British families against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine.
Last weekend Richard Barr, from law firm Alexander Harris, was in Virginia at the same conference as Singh and Wakefield, gathering evidence to back the case. He said: "There is a steady movement forward. We have already had three preliminary hearings and by the end of the year there will be progress. There is a worry about the safety of the vaccine and it is in everyone's interest to get it resolved."
The test case is expected to reach the courts next year but already lawyers for the families and the drugs companies have begun selecting the handful of about eight children who take the case forward.
Angus Kyle, 8, from Inverness, is on the shortlist of around three dozen autistic children from which the final eight will be agreed by both parties. He is also one of Wakefield's patients and has been involved in the research on which the success of the case may hang.
Angus' parents, Sheila and Ian, decided to take legal action because they are convinced the MMR vaccine is responsible for their son's autism and painful bowel disorder. Angus received the MMR vaccine at 15 months and gradually developed autistic symptoms until he was finally diagnosed with the condition at three years old.
Mrs Kyle said: "I think the first thing that changed about Angus was that, a couple of months after the vaccine, he started jumping up and down and flapping his hands. This is a feature of children who have autism. At the age of three we noticed he became withdrawn into himself. He would sit in a corner and play with a piece of string repetitively. He hadn't done that before. He also became extremely ritualistic. He developed a need to follow the same routes to places, watched the same videos and ate a narrow range of foods.
"One of the most distressing things was that, at three years old he started to distort and corrupt his language. He knew a lot of nursery rhymes at an early age and then his language became nonsensical with his words breaking up at the wrong place. He also started losing a lot of language.
"Our main reason for taking this action is to try and prevent other children being damaged in this way."
The debate is also raging in America where, earlier this year, scientists including Wakefield and Singh were called to present their evidence to an influential Congress committee. After a stormy meeting, leaders of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee urged the US Department of Health and Human Services to launch a new study into the alleged link.
This summer the vaccine was debated at the Scottish parliament and MSPs agreed there were too many concerns about a possible link between the MMR vaccine and an increase in the number of children being diagnosed as autistic for the issue to be swept aside.
They decided to gather more information from ministers and scientists before deciding whether to undertake an inquiry later this year.
And Labour MSP, Kenneth McIntosh, has put down a parliamentary question, asking the Executive what steps it is taking to ensure the public is inoculating against MMR. The call comes as a report to be published this week shows growing concerns in one health board area for the "disap pointing" uptake of the vaccine against mumps, measles and rubella.
The annual report of the director of public health for Argyll and Clyde Healthboard says: "The uptake of the three-in-one measles, mumps and rubella vaccine has continued to be disappointing. Large numbers of parents have not followed the professional advice that the vaccine is deemed to be safe. Parents appear to have forgotten that measles, mumps or rubella infection can be life-threatening or lead to permanent disability or ill-health."
The fear of links with autism and bowel disorders has prompted more than 200 families across Scotland to travel to Edinburgh to have their children inoculated separately by a private GP who is shipping in supplies of the single vaccines from France.
The parents' reaction has also prompted the government to issue reassurances as to the safety of the vaccine. Last month, Sir David Carter, outgoing chief medical officer, warned that the failure of parents to have their children inoculated could cause epidemics of measles, mumps and rubella.
The MMR vaccine was introduced to the UK in 1988. Thousands of fam ilies are refusing to vaccinate against the once-common childhood illnesses of measles, mumps and rubella because they fear it will do more harm than good.
However, the health department is refusing to budge on the issue for two reasons. If the vaccines are separated, the child is left exposed to one or two of the diseases until the course of three is completed.
In addition, if parents had to attend with their children three times instead of once for vaccination, there is less likelihood of achieving complete coverage against all three illnesses.
Bill Welsh, from Glasgow, became involved with families across Scotland who believe their children have been damaged by the jab after his own grandson suffered a severe reaction to the vaccination. He is calling for the Scottish parliament to re-introduce single vaccines.
He said: "Any decision taken by the Scottish parliament to reintroduce single vaccines as a choice will be welcomed by many parents who feel the 'MMR or nothing' approach does not respect their concerns."
While Wakefield addresses a conference on autism this weekend in California, experts gathered at the European Virology conference in Glasgow this weekend refuse to even contemplate a link.
Dr Bill Carman, an expert in anti viral vaccination at Glasgow University and organiser of the conference, said it was unlikely MMR would be discussed over the five-day event.
He said that for research to finally prove or disprove whether there is a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, it would require a huge study that would take about 12 years and a lot of money that could otherwise be used to fund research into cancer or heart disease.
He said that if the public was forced to make a realistic choice they would not back the necessary MMR research.