In his "Bad Science" column in The Guardian yesterday, Ben Goldacre noted:
The best thing about this job is you have an excuse to read the Daily Mail every day: but sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I worry that it might infect me. We are all biased by the information we expose ourselves to, through our friends, our reading, and our choices in life. I think science coverage is pretty poor, and a lot of it is plainly wrong.
The juxtaposition of the Daily Mail and poor science coverage is apt, when you consider this story, published yesterday in The Independent:
Measles has become endemic in Britain, 14 years after its spread was halted in the resident population, the country's public health watchdog says. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) warned that the number of unvaccinated children was now large enough to sustain the "continuous spread" of the potentially lethal virus in the community. It blamed a failure by parents over the past 10 years to give their children the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. This has resulted in vaccine rates falling below the level necessary to prevent the disease becoming established in the general population.
Ben in fact links to this story on his blog, and comments: "I cannot believe the mainstream media are trying to blame this on [Andrew] Wakefield instead of themselves. This is beneath contempt."
It is indeed, and no newspaper was more assiduous in spreading doubts about the MMR vaccine than the Mail. It carried numerous alarmist stories, and published no retraction when these were shown to be baseless. Melanie Phillips even discerned conspiracy on the part of "the government and a medical establishment that have behaved recklessly and spinelessly, and are busy suppressing all attempts to hold this up to the light". There is no suppression of information: there is evidence-based medicine, and there is superstition. (I'm still more saddened, incidentally, that Melanie touts "the evidence emerging from science that the hitherto unimaginable complexity of life forms, including the living cell, makes it scientifically impossible for life to have emerged without some kind of intelligent design".)
I have a minor autobiographical link with this question, in that I was one of the first children in the UK to be given the measles vaccine when it was developed in the 1960s. Till well into my adulthood I received an annual questionnaire from the Public Health Laboratory to check whether the vaccine was effective. It always was, and the same was true of other respondents; and eventually the survey was concluded. How ironic that public health with regard to this avoidable virus is now deteriorating, and that the supposed purveyors of news should have done so much to spread damaging misinformation.