'I wish I'd given my boys the triple jab': A frank mea culpa

I wish I’d given my boys the triple jab: A frank mea culpa from JUSTINE HANCOCK, a mother who regrets being scared off by a fraudulent study that linked the injection to autism

None of Justine Hancock’s three sons, now 24, 21 and 15, had the MMR jab as part of their routine childhood immunisations. But if she had to decide again, all three would have been given the triple vaccine

None of my three sons, now 24, 21 and 15, had the MMR jab as part of their routine childhood immunisations. But if I had to decide again, all three would have been given the triple vaccine.

Instead, like too many others, I was frightened off it by a study published in 1998 that linked it to autism.

It’s a decision I now regret. For, quite apart from leaving them unprotected for too long, with my first two unvaccinated, it meant I potentially exposed the baby I was hoping to conceive to the risk of rubella.

The complications of this viral infection are grim, and include deafness and heart problems for the baby, and miscarriage.

Not that I considered that at the time, in my fright.

The now-infamous — and fraudulent — study, published in 1998 in the world-renowned Lancet journal, was led by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. He’d looked at 12 children with autism, identifying eight whose parents said their children’s behavioural symptoms had developed within two weeks of receiving the MMR jab.

At a press conference after publication, Dr Wakefield (as he was — he’s since been struck off from the UK medical register) called for the MMR vaccine to be suspended pending more research.

The MMR story seemed to dominate the headlines for weeks on end — though possibly this was just how it felt to anxious parents.

The now-infamous — and fraudulent — study, published in 1998 in the world-renowned Lancet journal, was led by gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield

But in any event, like scalded cats, my friends and I talked about it and panicked — a few became anti-vaxxers and remain so. They’ve since been joined by countless thousands elsewhere, leading to falling rates of vaccination.

Others like me, who had no qualms about our children’s previous routine vaccinations (against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and the bacterial infection Hib), instead became ‘single-vaxxers’, getting the measles, mumps and rubella jabs done separately.

Wakefield himself suggested doing this, with the jabs a year apart.

So that’s why my memories of my sons’ pre-school years — and beyond — are dominated by endless car journeys to source the single vaccines.

I vividly remember in the early days going to one temporary clinic, set up above a shop in a suburb of London, which felt very fly-by-night. I am not sure it was around even a few weeks later.

While I then found other — legitimate — clinics, there were problems with supply, particularly of the mumps single jab. My middle son was nine years old when he finally had it.

It was a fraught business, and expensive — not much shy of £100 per jab. (This put me in the privileged minority able to afford the option of single jabs: who’s to say if others were driven to become anti-vaxxers by force of economic circumstance?)

And then, against this background, in 2001 there was the major storm over whether the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had given his toddler son, Leo, the triple jab. Mr Blair refused to say, his aides declaring that revealing family details would cross a red line. Stock picture

As I drove across the country and wrote out yet another cheque, it was with a sense of anger against the manufacturers and the Government who would no longer allow the single vaccines to be provided on the NHS.

I wanted to do the best by my children — to vaccinate them — but by making the triple MMR jab the only option, it felt like the Government was forcing me to do something to my children that I thought would do them harm.

And then, against this background, in 2001 there was the major storm over whether the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had given his toddler son, Leo, the triple jab. Mr Blair refused to say, his aides declaring that revealing family details would cross a red line.

Seven years later, Cherie wrote in her autobiography that Leo had in fact had the triple vaccine, admitting: ‘It’s fair to say I was in two minds. [But] I did get Leo vaccinated.’

To parents like me, the Prime Minister’s silence had been tacit confirmation that the MMR was ‘problematic’ and that we could ignore official advice to use it on our children. Tony, it seemed until we learned the truth, had probably either avoided the triple jab or had gone to France to get Leo the single jabs to protect him — which was all we wanted for our children, too.

As a mother-to-be I’d carefully avoided anything that might even vaguely affect my baby’s health — everything I consumed was organic, nothing ‘artificial’; I shunned paracetamol, and even when I developed pneumonia during my first pregnancy, I seriously thought twice about taking the antibiotics. I had no pain relief during labour.

I was ‘hard-core wholesome’ — and that continued after my babies were born. All organic food, of course (back then, that was a lot more difficult to do: I even persuaded a Californian friend to bring boxes of organic teething rusks every time she came to the UK, as I couldn’t source them here).

While I didn’t have a problem with vaccinations per se, the MMR study hit me and others at our most vulnerable: the desire to protect our babies.

It was hard to make the case for voluntarily doing harm to your child by risking ‘giving’ them autism (a lifelong condition) to avoid a minor childhood illness (just a passing misery, we thought, blasé thanks to the success of modern medicine).

By the time Wakefield’s study was being discredited (it was retracted by the Lancet in 2010), I’d moved into health journalism, and the evidence against the autism link was impossible to ignore.

There are at least ten large studies — and several smaller ones — that show the vaccine does not raise the risk of autism.

The most recent paper, published in March, involved more than 650,000 children up to about the age of eight, and was led by researchers in Denmark and California’s Stanford University.

It confirmed previous findings that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism — and that this was even the case with children who might be at higher risk of the disorder (perhaps because they have older parents or a sibling with the condition).

Although my sons had completed their full course of single jabs, I thought ‘just in case’, and made sure that they had booster triple jabs under the NHS’s ‘catch-up programme’, during secondary school.

This, to me, seems a way forward: don’t make parents feel guilty or stupid about not giving their child MMR.

Offer them a catch-up. And make it easier to get appointments in the evenings and at weekends — or even offer the option of healthcare professionals going into the home to give the vaccine. Clearly, there also needs to be an education programme to tackle social-media misinformation. But making MMR mandatory would be a mistake.

I think back to how I felt when the MMR story broke, and I fear that mandatory vaccination will only undermine trust in the medical profession among those who are already sceptical, while doing nothing to convert diehard anti-vaxxers.

As I write, I think about a relative of mine, now in his 30s, who caught meningitis as an infant and was left deaf, and how different his life has been as a result.

It was probably meningitis B that was to blame — back then, it was not part of the standard infant vaccination schedule. It is now, in the UK.

I’m no Pollyanna about vaccines — like any medical treatment, they can sometimes cause side-effects — and pharmaceutical companies certainly make money from them.

But I know that my family and I have benefited from them — as have vulnerable people, including pregnant women. For these reasons, I firmly believe the MMR is worth having. 

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