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Welsh paper's anti-vaccine reports 15 years ago tied to new measles upsurge

A Welsh newspaper is pinpointed this weekend by the Wall Street Journal over a huge rise in measles cases in the Swansea area this year - 15 years after stories about the anti-measles MMR vaccine possibly causing autism were publicised in the paper.

Andrew Wakefield: Paper retracted

"The bill has now come due," says the Wall Street Journal, reporting that a measles outbreak infected 1,219 people in southwest Wales between November 2012 and early July, compared with 105 cases in all of Wales in 2011.

Earlier this month the newspaper named by the Wall Street Journal - the South Wales Evening Post, part of the Local World group - announced that the measles outbreak which centred on the area had been declared over - eight months after it began.

The Welsh end of the story was part of a major WSJ article on the return of measles.

Swansea was not alone in suffering an upsurge in the disease. England also saw a big rise in measles cases last year with 1,168 cases in 2013 through May, up 64% from the year-earlier period and the highest level since 1994. However, the level was still well below that in South Wales.

"It's very galling. We had measles eliminated and now we've got it again" in the U.K., Paul Cosford, medical director of Public Health England told the WSJ.

The Port Talbot area was "a hotbed of resistance to the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella" the American paper, part of News Corp, reported.

Back in 1997 many parents refused the vaccine for their children after British doctor Andrew Wakefield suggested it might cause autism.

"As Dr. Wakefield's concerns gathered steam in Britain's national media in 1997," said the WSJ, a Port Talbot mother, Jackie Eckton, phoned the Evening Post to ask whether other parents had experienced problems with MMR.

In one 1997 article, Ms. Eckton told the Post the vaccine turned her three-year-old son , Daniel, who had been diagnosed with autism, into a "distant and silent recluse."

She told the paper she wanted to form "some sort of action group so people can help each other fight this thing and what it does."

The Post instructed parents wanting to join her campaign to phone its news desk, said the WSJ.

Within days, parents of 20 other children formed a group led by Ms. Eckton, and demanded an investigation into whether the "jabs" were faulty. The Post ran a headline: "Jab Mums Fear a Rogue Batch."

The health department told parents there was nothing wrong with the vaccine.

Ms. Eckton's group grew, and stories about other children followed, with headlines like "Mum fears twins may be jab victims."

After Dr. Wakefield's paper was published in February, 1998, the Post stepped up its coverage, with dozens of stories about worried parents.

Health experts in Wales say the Post's coverage was probably the main reason vaccination rates fell further in South Wales than elsewhere, the WSJ reported.

By the third quarter of 1998, uptake of the vaccine in 2-year-olds fell by 14% in the newspaper's distribution area, compared with a 2.4% drop in the rest of Wales, according to a report in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Fifteen years on -in November last year - doctors started seeing a marked increase in measles, There were dozens of new cases a week, and authorities declared an outbreak.

It especially hit children 10 to 18 years old who went unvaccinated during the autism scare, said the Wall Street Journal.

Most of those infected have recovered. But a 25-year-old man died of pneumonia related to the measles, according to Public Health Wales.

The Lancet retracted Dr. Wakefield's paper in 2010 after the U.K.'s General Medical Council concluded that his work was "irresponsible and dishonest." The council stripped him of his medical licence, saying in a report that he had engaged in "serious professional misconduct."

Dr. Wakefield rejects the idea that he helped cause the Welsh outbreak. The government's decision not to offer a measles-only vaccine, he says, "lays the blame fairly on their shoulders."

Efforts by the American paper to reach George Edwards, who edited the Post during the autism scare, were unsuccessful.

In April, the BBC quoted him as saying that "at no time did the newspaper ever say to parents 'do not let your children have this jab.'"

The Post's current editor, Jonathan Roberts, wrote in an April editorial: "It is clear that there were genuine concerns in the mid-1990s about MMR and the Post gave them full and responsible coverage." Mr. Roberts says he doesn't have anything to add to his editorial.

Ms. Eckton, who started the parents' group, says she still believes MMR damaged her son, now 18, who she says is severely autistic.

"I'm only a parent who watched what happened to my son," says Ms. Eckton, 46. "When you feel guilt for that, that's quite hard."

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