OPINION: The latest MMR twist is just a red herring

Can't you just imagine the atmosphere of self-righteous glee at the Department of Health this week? Having spent three years trying to pin the blame for the MMR vaccine debacle on one man - gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield - the kind doctor has apparently exonerated the Government in one fell stroke.

In fact the allegations last week that Wakefield's 1998 research - which sparked a nationwide health scare - was tainted by filthy lucre must have felt like manna from heaven to those attempting to shore up the Government line on MMR. And this feelgood factor can only have been enhanced by the denunciation of Wakefield's research by its very publisher, The Lancet, on the grounds that at the time of publication Wakefield was apparently also being paid for a study looking at evidence to support legal action by parents who thought their children had been damaged by the vaccine.

But after the initial euphoria has died down, the Government is likely to find that this latest twist in the MMR saga is little more than a red herring.

While Number 10 and the Department of Health have continued to pin their hopes on debunking Wakefield, the story long ago moved on into far more nebulous and less easily managed territory.

The MMR controversy is no longer about fact but fear - perhaps irrational but, to millions of parents, very real. The Government's initial response, to call for yet another inquiry, is a clear indication that there is no recognition of the depth of these fears and consequently the problem.

The answer doesn't lie in the science. The public is already sceptical about the Government's record of objectively communicating supposed scientific fact. The fear about links between MMR and autism is far too deeply embedded in the public psyche to be reversed by the debunking of one man's thesis.

The ranks of parents claiming personal experience of the negative effects of MMR, the highly emotive drama Hear the Silence and Tony Blair's unwillingness to come clean over whether his own son has been administered with the jab, have moved the story to another level and served to undermine any attempt to reassure the public.

Some of us also feel that there are just too many vested interests at stake here. Even local GPs' objectivity has been called into question by the targets imposed on them by central government.

The awful reality is that the only hope the Government has of pushing up vaccine levels is if its dire prognosis of a measles epidemic proves to be more than a health scare. At this stage, only another deeper fear will displace the current distrust.

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