Sunday, 8 February 2009

Pete Hitchens reckons your child probably won't die

The frustrating thing about Pete 'call me Peter' Hitchens* is that he's not an idiot. Unlike some of his lazier colleagues, Hitchens has shown that he's actually a capable writer, an intelligent one with the capacity to understand issues with some level of depth. This only serves to make it all the more infuriating when he deliberately throws compelling counter-evidence aside to hammer out a story consistent with his overarching narrative, which is essentially a lament that Britain has moved on from its Victorian values.

Today Pete is back talking about MMR. It begins, as such stories often do, with an anecdotal attempt to throw doubt on the numerous studies which have repeatedly shown no evidence of a link between MMR and autism. Snorting at the idea that MMR is 'safe', Pete replies:

Well, tell that to Heather Edwards, whose son Josh developed severe bowel problems and autism after his first MMR, and then suffered the same thing redoubled after the second jab.

Coincidence? Twice? Maybe. We’ll never know.
That's right, he did just use the hilarious conspiracy-theory technique of putting two events together and pointedly asking 'Coincidence?', an argument that has long since become an established joke among people who mock such theories. Of course, after this single anecdote, Pete confesses that there are mountains of available research (some of it mentioned here) that strongly indicates there's no link and that it therefore could, indeed, be a coincidence. Oh, no, wait! He doesn't, he just goes on to make an appeal to emotion:

Poor Josh, though much-loved, is now in a terrible way, desperately thin and missing much of his insides.

Are the authorities really so sure the MMR is completely safe?
'Completely safe', of course, isn't really true of any vaccine, which is why no-one says that it is. With a vaccine that produces an effect, there is a chance of side-effects. These are usually well understood by doctors, disclosed fully in medical literature, and ought to be taken into account when making a decision about when and whom to vaccinate. Hitchens, though, thinks that acknowledging side-effects is a winking admission that the Government and medicine are covering up The Truth that MMR causes autism:

Well, listen to Vivienne Parry, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, who candidly admitted back in 2007: ‘There’s a small risk with all vaccines.

'No one has ever said that any vaccine is completely without side effects. But we have to decide whether the benefits outweigh the risks.

'If we had measles, it would kill lots of children. If you have a vaccine, it will damage some children, but a very small number.’
It seems Pete has just contradicted his stance that the authorities claim it's entirely safe by quoting an authority figure saying it's not. Oops! Anyway, confronted with the notion that unchecked measles could indeed be a dangerous disease which can lead to severe complications up to and including death, Pete reaches for some compelling counter-stats based on what I can only assume are hundreds of sleepless hours ploughing through research papers:

Will measles kill lots of children? I doubt it.

In very rare cases, it can lead to fatal complications but in general it doesn’t.
You got that? He doubts it. Like Jeni Barnett, he thinks that in general measles isn't gonna kill your child. This is a very curious argument when you consider the reasons why he's writing it. Could you imagine how he would react if a doctor had written the reverse of what he just asserted there? "In very rare cases, MMR can lead to autism but in general it doesn’t". He'd be aghast at the callousness of the dismissal of these 'rare cases'.

It's hard to read people like Hitchens and not come away with the idea that, on some issues, they just take the opposite view to authorities they don't like, and choose the evidence that supports their previously-held view. I can imagine that in an alternate universe somewhere the NHS has withdrawn the MMR vaccine, citing a 12-subject preliminary study claiming a link to autism, in which the doctor involved reportedly tweaked his results. In that universe, The Mail is running screaming headlines about every subsequent child death from measles, and columnists are suspicious that the decision to withdraw was merely financial, that the NHS and Government have simply decided that letting a few kids die of measles is 'cost-effective'.

It's up to you though. On the one hand you have decades of peer-reviewed research systematically looking at the safety of the MMR vaccine and concluding, tentatively of course, that autism is not a known side-effect on the balance of evidence. On the other you have sour-faced miserabilist Pete Hitchens, who assures you that children, y'know, generally don't die of measles. And he's right. For a lot of people, measles will be a minor illness. But what research has told us is that one in ten cases of measles will put the child in hospital, significant numbers of them will get pneumonia/bronchitis, convulsions, meningitis, encephalitis, serious brain complications, and yes, on some occasions, they will die.

What we also know is that, in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published his paper that started this row, there were 56 cases of measles in England and Wales. In 2008 there were 1,348 confirmed cases. Two children have died since 2006. That is to say, children have literally died from an illness that we have a proven vaccine for, an illness that was supposed to be eradicated from Europe by next year. If vaccinations continue to go down, more children will die, and media coverage like this will only serve to increase the doubt about the safety of MMR despite robust scientific evidence that suggests that autism is not linked to it. Sure, measles is a bit dangerous, but hey, it'll still be true that most children won't die from measles, so let's drink to that! Cheers, Pete!

*I should probably at some point explain why I insist on calling Peter Hitchens 'Pete'. Normally I hate the undeniably cheap shot of playing around with people's names to undermine them (cf. 'Harriet Harperson', 'Tony B.Liar' etc), but Hitchens insists on calling Tony Blair 'Anthony Blair', as he does again in today's column. In Hitchens' view, Blair preferring to be known as 'Tony' is a mendacious piece of political spin; it represents Blair's outrageous 'I'm a guy like you, I'm just some bloke called Tony' con. Irritating as this was, it wasn't an opinion that seemed particularly insane, until late last year he started calling Barack Obama 'Barry'. As he explains:

Why do I call Mr Obama 'Barry'? For the same reason that I call Mr Blair 'Anthony'. It is his name, or rather was his name, until it suited him to change it. Its use makes (some) people think, my main purpose in life.
At no point does it seem to occur to him that these are actually polar opposite situations. Obama uses his full name for politics. Blair uses the nickname people called him by. It's win-win for Hitchens; can you imagine the reaction he'd give if Barack Obama was hiding his distinctly un-American first name and calling himself 'Barry'? That would be the same as Blair calling himself Tony. This is the exact opposite, and yet Pete 'Peter' Hitchens (I'm assuming someone in his family has at some point called him 'Pete' and yet he uses his full name to add gravitas) thinks they're the same thing. Apparently he prefers to make other people think so he doesn't have to sit down and actually review his ideas himself.


  1. Hitchens is also a climate change "sceptic", not coincidentally, because he doesn't want it to be true so he'll just insist that it can't be, evidence or no evidence.

  2. And did you hear the t**t lecturing working mothers about the evils of leaving their children in day orphanages and why working parents or - God help us all - separated parents are just about one up (slightly) from paedophiles in their evilness. Oh, perhaps we should all give up work and let the state pay - oh, bugger, no, because then we'd still be scum in his eyes. Intelligent? - well maybe. Screaming ignorant bigot? definitely

  3. In that alternative universe, Hitch is campagining against the nanny-state Stalinist government prying into people's private lives and trying to ban cannabis, while at the same time lobbying to keep eating meat illegal because of its potential health effects.

  4. I've done another round-up post -- who is saying what about the Deer articles on Wakefield in the London Times. I've included this post.

    11 years on, Wakefield Manufactured Data showing MMR-Autism Link?

    thanks for pointing out the Hitchens lunacy -- he's largely invisible here in the U.S.

  5. This is strange; he's usually a tobacco lobby cigs, DDT, and CO2 denier. I always thought the unifying principle was just to deny that anything produced by big business was harmful, whatsoever. But we've got an anomalous result here...

  6. Hi, I think you have not read the actual science on vaccine research but blithely assume that there are dozens of excellent quality, bias free, independent papers out there, published in sound scientific journals that prove what you believe to be proven. Unfortunately this is not the case. There are none. Any proper trial with sufficient subjects in, spread over enough years and over different populations, with sufficient data observation points to mean something, cannot be performed. There are no longer enough people who have not had any vaccines (them or their parents) to perform this sort of proper research, and the ethics committees that must pass all trials before they proceed would not allow this sort of research anyway as, like you, they too start from a position of believing in vaccines.
    Many in the vaccine industry have shared their concerns about the contents of these drug and chemical cocktails, as do all sorts of significant scientists in labs all over the world. Indeed many vaccines have been shown to be so dangerous, to babies especially, that they have been withdrawn (please note this quote from a paper by the Institute of Medicine in 1985 about the current pertussis aspect of the DTP jab: "Low grade fever and local tenderness occur frequently after injection. Severe disturbing untoward reactions, including shock, convulsions, encephalopathy, and persistent high-pitched screaming, are rare complications. The frequency of fatal reactions has been estimated to be 1 or 2 cases per ten million injections and the frequency of serious neurological disorders such as encephalopathy to be one case per 110,000 injections with persistent neurological dysfunction after one year later." In a paper titled New Vaccine Development; Establishing Priorities in 1985).
    Others vaccines have been withdrawn due to evident ineffectiveness (e.g. BCG, dropped in 2005 from the school age vaccine schedule, even though TB was flourishing and indeed becoming antibiotic resistant, and still is.)
    Two of the links you include in your blog post are odd. The second one goes to a newspaper page which doesn't include the item you suggest that it does, and the third one goes to a BBC News site item which give a very different number to you of a jump in cases of measles by 36% (990 cases in 2007 to 1,348 in 2009) but you mentioned just 56 cases, which would have made the jump more like 24 times as high (i.e. 2,300% higher!) which would indeed have been more of a headline.
    Have you actually read Andrew Wakefield's book 'Callous Disregard' by the way? It is a blow by blow, names, dates, quotes of individuals, and documents too account of exactly what happened in the famous cases that the whole incident revolved around. I recommend you get a copy from the library and then consider why some consider you to have no right to an opinion, since you know so very little of the subject on which you opine.
    The sort of scrutiny required to unravel the whole troubled history of vaccines is too much for most of us - we simply do not have the time, but troubled history there certainly is. Dr Suzanne Humphries, a nephrologist, recently wrote a tome on the subject, called 'Disappearing Illusions' which will help to dispel some of the illusions that you clearly harbour.