MMR: now for the triple jump

Private Eye 23 March—5 April 2001 (issue 1024)

THE Scottish parliament looks set to rattle the cages of complacent health ministers and officials this week with a report recommending that parents should not be forced to give children the controversial triple MMR vaccine and should be allowed instead to opt for single vaccines.

This will be the first big dent in the official hard line that MMR is the safest way to protect children and single doses are not an option. If Scottish parents are allowed to choose single vaccines, it will be impossible to stop the practice elsewhere in the UK.

Meanwhile, three new pieces of research looking at vaccines and autism or both are likely to force even more parents away from the measles, mumps and rubella jab.

The first, by researchers at the Royal Free Hospital in London, has found that some children with regressive autism suffer a unique leaky gut syndrome, not found in non-autistic children or children with known forms of gut and bowel disorder.

The suggestion arising from the study of 68 children over a two-year period is that an immune process is damaging the gut and that further investigation should focus on researching immune reactions in the gut, rather then concentrating - as most autism research currently is — on genetics.

Elsewhere, in the Journal of Paediatrics, other work suggests that such leaky guts allow partially digested food to enter the bloodstream and toxic material to cross the blood-brain barrier - which is akin to giving the brain a huge shot of morphine. Yet, more work in the US, Japan and the UK which has found a rogue measles virus in the blood or guts of many of the children with both autism and the rare gut disorder suggests there may be a link with vaccination.

The second new study, by two researchers at the University of Minnesota, did explore immune reactions in children with regressive autism. Although only a small study of 35 autistic children were compared with 27 "normal" children, they found the autistic children’s immune systems acted abnormally when subjected to outside triggers like vaccines, virus and food. In other words, in a number of vulnerable children a vaccine could send their immune system into overdrive. "These results may partly explain apparent association between the onset of regression/autistic behaviour and immunisation in these children," say the researchers.

There are still no signs, however, that health officials in Britain are changing their minds. Only last month the committee on the safety of medicines reiterated support for MMR, and in an attempt to influence the wavering Scottish parliamentarians, six Scottish medical institutions issued a press release reporting that the "overwhelming weight of scientific evidence on MMR, including the world’s largest study of the vaccine, reaffirms its safety".

As the Eye detailed in January, the world’s biggest study (carried out in Finland) does no such thing. And nor do several other studies cited by the committee.

Perhaps health officials should listen to the American Institute of Medicine. Research carried out for it by George Washington University looked at 60 scientific papers covering MMR, measles vaccine, autism or bowel disease to see if they supported the concerns first raised here by Andrew Wakefield at the Royal Free in 1998 of a possible link between MMR and rare regressive autism and gut disease (see Eyes passim).

The American researchers looked at papers cited by the UK health officials and ministers to rubbish Dr Wakefield — and decided that they do not help the debate one way or another.

They conclude: "Furthermore, the studies commonly cited in response to Wakefield typically address either other vaccines or other outcomes or both, so even if well done would not really refute the Wakefield hypothesis. Thus... the evidence is inadequate to accept or reject a causal relationship between MMR and autism." So far.