Boycott of TV MMR debate under attack

December 12, 2003

Scientists and doctors who backed out of a potentially hostile television debate about the measles mumps and rubella vaccine wasted an important opportunity, key figures in science communication have claimed, writes Anna Fazackerley.

The debate will be shown on channel Five on Monday, after the screening of what scientists have labelled a "dangerous" drama about a mother who teams up with scientist Andrew Wakefield to try to prove there is a link between her child's autism and the MMR vaccine.

Scientists and doctors from the Department of Health, the Medical Research Council and key London hospitals agreed to boycott the debate, fearing the odds were stacked too heavily against mainstream science.

The Science Media Centre, set up to encourage more scientists to take part in controversial discussions such as this, tried to change their minds.

Fiona Fox, director of the centre, told The THES : "Our concern would be that rather than sending a powerful message, empty seats left by the scientists just leave the public hearing the silence from those experts best qualified to comment on the risks."

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, who stepped in at the last minute to speak in favour of the vaccine and had a robust altercation with Dr Wakefield on stage, described the event as "appalling".

He said: "We did the best we could but it was pitched halfway between Kilroy and Jerry Springer."

Dr Harris said that someone had to take part but said that a medical expert would have made a more convincing case than a politician.

Those who boycotted the debate this week stood by their decision.

Helen Bedford, a lecturer at the Institute of Child Health, said: "It became obvious that it would be very difficult to have a reasonable debate after one-and-a-half hours of a very emotional film."

Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the MRC, called the debate "underhand".

He said: "It was pretty clear the debate had been set up as a device to validate the documentary."

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