| 9.4°C Dublin

I remember day bombshell rocked medicine

I vividly remember the press conference called by the Royal Free Hospital in 1998 to publicise Andrew Wakefield's research paper in The Lancet. It was one of the biggest public relations disasters in the world of medicine.

The Lancet knew it had a potentially explosive paper on its hands. It was sent to four specialists for peer review and discussed by the Lancet's editorial committee on three occasions. The journal commissioned a highly sceptical commentary, published alongside the paper.

The Royal Free took a different tack.It called a press conference before a panel of five doctors, led by Professor Arie Zuckerman (a virologist and dean of the medical school, but not an author of the paper). All were eminent in their own fields but, fatally, each had a different opinion.

The five agreed the line they would take, which was to recommend continued use of the MMR vaccine pending further research. Under questioning, however, this carefully constructed consensus fell apart.

The tension rose as the event progressed and by the end, Andrew Wakefield was coolly urging parents to give their children single vaccines at annual intervals, while Zuckerman was on his feet, banging the lectern in frustration as he insisted that the MMR vaccine had been given to millions of children around the world and was safe.

The following morning, headlines inevitably highlighted the potential risks from MMR. In the years following, national vaccination rates against MMR fell from above 90 per cent to below 80 per cent, dropping so low in some areas that measles outbreaks have occurred.