Our children, the soothsayers?

We’ve just taken Gwen for the MMR jab, and I’m worried.

I’ve been reading some articles on measles in Swansea, and the claimed ill-effects of triple vaccination. My head is full of conflicting concerns.

We’re going to that part of Wales soon. Will the lack of herd immunity mean that Austin and Gwen catch measles anyway, even though they’re both now vaccinated? Apparently, around one or two of every 20 people won’t be immune, even if they have the jab. So in an epidemic, they could still go down with the illness. And, if one of our children does catch it, will they develop measles encephalitis, and die, like Roald Dahl’s poor daughter Olivia?

But then, on the other hand, could Gwen become autistic shortly after having her vaccine, like this woman is convinced her son did? Although Andrew Wakefield’s research was completely discredited, there are still plenty of parents who swear their child ended up with autism because of MMR. Wakefield’s research was funded off the back of very real concerns – by parents of autistic children, who were willing to instruct their lawyers to pay tens of thousands of pounds for scientific evidence showing a link. So where did their conviction come from? There’s no smoke without fire, some say.

To be honest, I didn’t really think twice about vaccination, until afterwards, when I started reading all the recent articles. In my view, the NHS has enough clued-up, smart people working for it to be trusted when it says that the triple vaccine is the safest route. I’d take that as more reliable than anecdotal evidence, and the results of an unethical small-scale study carried out by a doctor who stood to gain financially from the results.

But still: there’s a small, nagging doubt at the back of my mind about whether we’ve done the right thing.

There’s one thing I can be sure of: this most recent debate is a media storm about a media storm. Which is frightening an awful lot of people.

I was raised in an era when journalists were seen as gatekeepers to the truth. When there were only three, and then – to great fanfare, and disapproval from traditionalists – four television channels. ‘Scoops’ were the foodstuff of the press, and editors sought to splash front pages with controversial viewpoints that shook up the natural order. Even if, sometimes, there was only a marginal chance that those viewpoints were accurate.

But, we didn’t realise that at the time. And, even now when I know better, the media still has the power to send me into a head-spin of confusion when it comes to the safety of people I care about the most. It’s just the way I was raised: “these people know what they are talking about; we should believe them”.

Will this kind of thing still happen by the time Austin and Gwen are adults? Recently, commentators have said things have moved on since the Wakefield scandal. Reporters and editors are held in check by a new public awareness of how the media works. So news agencies are less likely to take a minority viewpoint, like Wakefield’s, and give it more airspace than more proven facts, just so they can generate striking headlines and increase revenue.

I’d like to hope we are heading towards a brave new era of clued-up citizens, who can spot misinformation a mile off. Austin and Gwen are children of Leveson, not of Reith. They will be raised on Twitter, Wikipedia and blogs, able to cross-check any story put out by the more traditional media against a cacophony of opinions and knowledge held by non-media professionals.

This background hum of information and misinformation may turn out to be confusing. But I think that, by the time they reach adulthood, Austin and Gwen will have learnt enough about how the media works to be able to tell the wheat from the chaff. After all, a recent publication by a coalition of more than 90 organisations, including the NSPCC and Barnardo’s, has even gone so far as to suggest five year-olds should be taught about airbrushing in the media. This is the kind of education our children have to look forward to. It’s exactly the kind of media literacy they need.

I’m sure that, in the future, fears about safety will still throw many into the arms of people who stand to make a profit from increased worries. So we must do our best to equip our youngsters with the skills to make up their own minds, and to shout down the scaremongers.

A big thank you to everyone who helped get me shortlisted as a Fresh Voice in Britmums’ Brilliance in Blogging awards. I’m up against some stiff competition. To vote in the final, click on the badge on the right of this page.

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12 Comments

  1. I do think children need to be educated to think for themselves and question.
    It’s a sad world where we can’t immediately trust anything we read or see, but that is the reality. We use the example that our eldest was once listed as the stunt co-ordinator of several films on Wikipedia – after a night on the lash with his mates and someone’s clever idea to edit entries. Just because it’s written down doesn’t make it true :)

    • Gosh – how long did your son’s name stay up there? I use Wikipedia all the time, but that’s one thing that troubles me. I know people are supposed to be on it, checking, all the time, but if you click on it at the wrong moment you could get a load of rubbish that some joker has put up there for a laugh.

      Probably quite funny to see your son’s name up there in lights for a while, though!

  2. I totally agree! So important to be aware of how the media works, who is behind it (normal people who are trying to make a living, I mean, not necessarily evil overlords, though I’m not ruling that out) and how to sift through all the conflicting information to arrive at something approaching the truth. I myself am averagely well versed in this, but my husband is very sharp and I kind of defer to him on matters of keeping-an-eye-on-the-news-behind-the-news. I know that is bad and unfeminist but hey…

    Your post also reminded me of when I was teaching English to immigrants and asylum seekers. Reading between the lines, hyperbole and ulterior motives were things I taught the advanced level groups, and it is so hard to do. First of all, a lot of my students had an implicit trust of authority and things-in-print that was hard to shake. Secondly, if you are just about competetent in a language you can usually function at a skimming the surface level of meaning, but digging deeper into implications, and why one particular word is usually negative but another is neutral is almost impossible.

    • That sounds like such a challenging class to have to teach, but very worthwhile. I think that media literacy is doubly important for groups of people who are often the victims of viciousness on the part of the press.

  3. What a fantastic post Nell, it’s indeed a challenge for parents. I too grew in the era of journalists being gatekeepers to the truth when there were limited TV channels. You can never believe what you read on or offline these days. I worry what it will be like for POD when she’s older – although she is only two so we’re alright for a bit :)

  4. A really thought-provoking post. As a mum of older children, we frequently talk about what’s in the news, usually at dinner. It’s so important to be able to put everything into perspective and already my daughters are unimpressed at sensationalised journalism, celeb culture etc.
    For what it’s worth I think you were right to take Gwen for her MMR jab. Despite having my daughters vaccinated against whooping cough, twin two still managed to catch it. She was just nine at the time and it was truly dreadful. After a brief spell in hospital we decided to take care of her at home and after three months she was OK.
    Congratulations on being shortlisted for the BiBs.

    • Thank you! Although I’ve just been having a proper look through all the other Fresh Voice shortlisted blogs, and am now feeling a bit sick. They’re all scarily good!

      Now I’ve got a bit of distance from all the worrying articles, I’m back to my original resolve: immunisation is definitely the best option. I’m glad I did it. Sorry to hear about your daughter – must have been terrifying.

  5. Hi Nell. I rarely stick my neck out this much, but am absolutely convinced that you are doing the right thing going for the MMR. I did a lot of research before letting J have it (including the possibility of getting single jabs privately). I think you have hit the nail on the head asking how much we can trust the media. Whilst I think Wakefield research very flawed, I am also sure that some of the “witch hunt” aspects of the campaign to discredit him have actually made some people think there might be something in his views.

    • That’s a very interesting point. Yes, people flocking to discredit Wakefield did indeed give him more airspace.

      Thanks for sticking your neck out about MMR. Like I said in response to the comment above, I’m now convinced I did the right thing. As the Daddy D reminds me, if lots of people choose not to vaccinate, then the herd immunity disappears and children may get ill even if they HAVE had the jab. We owe it to our friends, and ourselves, to get it done.

  6. Ah, I was sick this week and have missed loads of your posts. Good opportunity for a catch up! If it helps, my husband works in the pharmaceutical industry and deals with info on drug safety etc and EVERYONE he knows and works with, has given their child the MMR. Obviously nothing is 100% safe but he absolutely believes from the available data that our children are safer having had the MMR than they would be otherwise.

    I do agree though that the media stir things up terribly! They love targeting parents as we are such an anxious bunch so willing to second-guess our own choices and criticize one-another. We are all doing our very best!

    • Hope you’re feeling better now! And thanks for passing on the info about your husband. I heard a neurologist talking on the radio a couple of days ago, and he said a similar thing. But he did also say that, for a short while, the media kerfuffle caused a couple of tiny doubts to creep into his mind, just for a short while. I’m glad it’s not just me, and that even the experts, with all the facts at their fingertips, feel the influence of big media storms.

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