The UK Health Security Agency is sufficiently concerned about the growing number of measles cases in the West Midlands that it declared a ‘national incident’ last week. According to official figures, there have been 216 confirmed and 103 probable measles cases in the region since last October. The cause? The uptake of the MMR vaccine is at its lowest level in more than a decade, according to Dame Jenny Harries, CEO of the UKHSA.
For some, this is proof of the ‘harm’ that anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists can do if greater efforts aren’t made to silence them. A leading article in the Times blamed the outbreak on ‘disease disinformation’, accusing activists of waging ‘irresponsible and immoral campaigns’. That echoed the findings of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which published a report in 2021 urging social media organisations to deplatform the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ – 12 individuals and their organisations responsible for 65 per cent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. The centre cited ‘researchers’ who ‘are increasingly connecting misinformation disseminated via social media to increased vaccine hesitancy’.
As a free speech advocate, I’m sceptical about this diagnosis. The main spreaders of health-related ‘misinformation’ over the past four years or so have not been vaccine sceptics, but official organisations like the World Health Organisation which, in the early phase of the pandemic, exaggerated the risk of Covid-19, particularly to children, leading to unnecessary school closures. We now know that the two-metre social distancing rule had no scientific basis, and the evidence underlying mask mandates is threadbare at best. We also have good reason to believe the cost of lockdown far outweighed the benefit. The example of Sweden, which never imposed a national lockdown, suggests there were very few benefits at all.
Surely it is this catalogue of errors, which caused incalculable social and economic harm, that has eroded people’s trust in the public health establishment, not the anti-vaxxers? Is it any wonder some parents are reluctant for their children to have the MMR, given how often they’ve been lied to about the benefits of this or that health measure over the past four years? I daresay a few of them can recall the government applying pressure on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to change its mind about recommending in December 2021 that five- to 11-year-olds shouldn’t be given the Covid jab.