Dr Evan Harris MP and MMR
14 February 2008
By John Stone

Dr Evan Harris resigned his position of Liberal Democrat health spokesman in 2003 due to the illness of his partner. Shortly afterwards he appeared in the MMR 'Hear the Silence' debate on Channel 5 along side Michael Fitzpatrick and Anjana Ahuja. In February 2004 he accompanied Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer to the Lancet offices to level accusations against Andrew Wakefield. Although Harris's accusations of unethical practices in regard to the treatment of patients were endorsed neither by the Lancet or the Sunday Times he led a debate in the House of Commons, re-introducing the accusations under protection of parliamentary privilege.

In this debate he did disclose recent hospitality from MMR defendants Aventis, but failed to acknowledge earlier hospitality from Glaxo, by that period merged with SmithKline Beecham, and also an MMR defendant. When this was brought up in BMJ Rapid Responses a defence of Harris came through from a senior officer of the Health Protection Agency, Prof Brian McCloskey.

In 2006 Harris was on the panel of judges for the Association of British Science Writers Awards which awarded Ben Goldacre for the second time the prize for best feature article (2005).

Although Goldacre, too, was a prominent opponent of the MMR-Autism hypothesis it is curious that in the prize-winning article he seemed to reject the claim of unethical procedures in the 1998 Lancet article:

"Now, even though popular belief in the MMR scare is - perhaps - starting to fade, popular understanding of it remains minimal: people periodically come up to me and say, isn't it funny how that Wakefield MMR paper turned out to be Bad Science after all? And I say: no. The paper always was and still remains a perfectly good small case series report, but it was systematically misrepresented as being more than that, by media that are incapable of interpreting and reporting scientific data."

In January 2007 Harris entered in the Register of Members Interests:

"I have been provided with the services of an intern to conduct research work and co-ordinate a project by Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust."

However, Sense About Science could more accurately be described as as an aggressive industry lobby organisation. It lists as its contributers:

"the ABPI, AstraZeneca plc, BBSRC, The Biochemical Society, Blackwell Publishing, BP plc, British Institute of Radiology, Dixons Group plc, Elsevier, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Garfield Weston, GE Healthcare, GlaxoSmithKline, Halifax Bank of Scotland, Health and Science Communication Trust, Institute of Physics, Institute of Physics and Engineering in Medicine, John Innes Centre, John Innes Trust, Medical Research Council, NESTA, New Scientist, Oxford GlycoSciences plc, Pfizer plc, The Physiological Society, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Astronomical Society, Royal College of Radiology, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, Royal Society of Chemistry, Science Careers.org, Social Issues Research Centre, The Society for Applied Microbiology, The Society for Endocrinology, The Society for General Microbiology, Unilever plc. Help with equipment, facilities and services has been received from: AXA Investment Management, Horticultural Research International, Institute of Biology, The Natural History Museum, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, and WPP."

Much of the prosecution case at the GMC hearing was based on Harris's accusations of unethical invasive procedures, although it is less clear that much headway was made with them, as extensively reported by Martin J Walker.

Much of Harris's case seems to rest on the circular argument that autistic children do not have bowel disease. However, he is under a serious misapprehension as the National Autsistic Society have pointed out:

"The National Autistic Society (NAS) is keenly aware of the concerns of parents surrounding suggested links between autism and the MMR vaccine. The charity is concerned that the GMC hearing, and surrounding media coverage, will create further confusion and make it even more difficult for parents to access appropriate medical advice for their children.

"It is particularly important that this case is not allowed to increase the lack of sympathy that some parents of children with autism have encountered from health professionals, particularly on suspected gut and bowel problems. Parents have reported to the NAS that in some cases their concerns have been dismissed as hysteria following previous publicity around the MMR vaccine. It is crucial that health professionals listen to parents' concerns and respect their views as the experts on their individual children.

"There is an urgent need for further, authoritative research into the causes of autism, to improve our understanding of the condition, to respond to parents' concerns and to enable us to ensure that there are appropriate services and support in place to meet people's needs." See here

As we know, in many cases this lack of sympathy has degenerated into Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy allegations - meanwhile the public and professional perception of what has been going on has been largely influenced by Harris's misconceived allegations, and much of the responsibility for this confusion must lie on his head.

Fascinating, more than four years on to read this comment from the much lamented Paul Foot, the last journalist ever to say a sceptical word  about MMR in the Guardian:

"Last week's Channel Five programme Hear the Silence about the MMR controversy was one of the best dramas I have seen. It was not just a moving true story, beautifully acted. It was also a shocking indictment of the medical establishment. A group of parents were confronted with the fear that their children had become autistic after having the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. A responsible authority should surely take such fears seriously and deploy the full extent of scientific research to testing the fears, if only to allay them. The reaction of the authorities was exactly the opposite.

"The one senior doctor who took the parents seriously, Andrew Wakefield, had his research stopped and was effectively banished to the US. Despite his record as an often published scientist, he was widely smeared. Legal aid for the parents to sue the government was cut off.

"On the programme, the two sides confronted each other. On the parents' side there was anguished concern, backed by sober science from Wakefield. On the other was outraged impatience, led by two slightly fanatical GPs, including Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West. He insisted there was no link between autism and MMR, and loudly failed to prove that this was so. Instead, he went some way to proving the time-honoured medical principle that doctors know everything, and patients nothing."

John Stone