Anti-vaxxers are as old as the very first vaccine. Edward Jenner, who saved the world from the scourge of smallpox, faced ferocious opposition. When Prince Albert unveiled a posthumous statue to him in Trafalgar Square in 1858, it was met with virulent opposition from anti-vaxxers, backed by the military who regarded Trafalgar Square plinths as exclusively theirs.
Pulling down statues is nothing new or “woke”. The Times called for Jenner’s to be removed and within a year of Albert’s death in 1861 it was shuffled off to an obscure spot in Kensington Gardens. The British Medical Journal protested that military statues remained while Jenner was banished, “because they killed their fellow creatures whereas he only saved them”.
The BMJ has long opposed anti-vaxxers, and few have been more dangerous than the disgraced scientist Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent claims about the MMR vaccine were given loud backing in the Daily Mail under its former editor Paul Dacre. In 1998, Wakefield published a paper that implied a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The scare caused by the MMR controversy led to a drop in vaccination rates, and outbreaks of measles and mumps followed. Britain lost its World Health Organization “measles elimination” status in 2019.
The Mail writer Melanie Phillips continued stridently plugging the anti-MMR bogus science even when Wakefield’s paper was comprehensively dismissed by an authoritative Cochrane review. Shortly after the review found there was “no credible evidence” for a link between MMR and autism in 2005, the Mail published a feature by Phillips claiming “MMR safe? Baloney. This is one scandal that’s getting worse”. No surprise that she has also called the science on global heating a “scam”.
In the BMJ in 2005, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, GP and author of books on the subject, condemned the damage the paper was doing: “Why can’t the Daily Mail eat humble pie over MMR?” When, finally, Wakefield was disgraced and struck off the UK medical register for “serious professional misconduct”, the Mail went silent on anti-vaxxing claims.
Any Mail readers with a memory may have been astonished by the “Mail campaign” last year for parents to give children the MMR vaccine, with a front-page headline “Give them a chance … Give them their jab”. It protested that “MMR myths and online scare stories have seen children’s vaccinations plummet – and infections soar. It’s why today the Mail issues this plea.”
Alongside this ran a leader article that acknowledged the error of the Mail’s support for Wakefield’s thesis: “Knowing what we all know now, it should never have been given such credence – and that is a matter of profound regret.” Perhaps this is a defiant raspberry by the Mail’s new editor, Geordie Greig, at his enemy predecessor. Further acknowledgment came this week in an article the Mail commissioned from that same let-them-eat-humble-pie challenger, Michael Fitzpatrick, who wrote a trenchant attack on the “shrill anti-vaccination movement” – the conspiracists and pseudoscientists who threatened the success of a coronavirus vaccine.
He points to Wakefield’s re-emergence via video link at a Trafalgar Square anti-vaxxers protest, as “chief-peddler of anti-MMR nonsense”. But that nonsense might have disappeared more easily into obscurity had it not been amplified in the past by the Mail.
Fitzpatrick makes a reasoned case, acknowledging all the uncertainties still to be clarified before a Covid vaccine is proclaimed safe. But he points to one recent poll from the Royal Society and British Academy which shows as many as 36% of people in the UK say they are either uncertain (27%) or very unlikely (9%) to be vaccinated against Covid. So there is still a battle to be won – not least against the Society of Homeopaths, whose head of standards has shared social media content calling vaccines “poison”, and has claimed that homeopathy has a “great track record of success in epidemics” including Spanish and bird flu.
The Royal Society and the British Academy are calling for the promotion of anti-vax myths to be made a criminal offence. That might be a bad mistake, fuelling the paranoia of anti-vax cranks. Expect no humble pie from the Daily Mail, but be grateful that it will be, for once, on the right side of history in combatting this dangerous conspiracy theory.
Meanwhile, let’s have Edward Jenner back on his rightful plinth in Trafalgar Square, silently defying the anti-science unreason swirling all about us.
• This article was amended on 13 November 2020, to reflect the fact that the Daily Mail has expressed profound regret for its support for Andrew Wakefield’s work
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist