A regional daily editor has broken his silence over claims that a newspaper campaign may have contributed to a measles outbreak on its patch.
The South Wales Evening Post came under fire last week for a campaign started in 1997 in which it raised concerns about the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
A report on the BBC Radio 4′s Today programme said health officials had partly blamed the paper for the current outbreak of measles in Swansea, which has affected nearly 600 children and young people.
The paper’s newly-appointed editor, Jonathan Roberts, initially said the campaign had “pre-dated their entire newsroom” and that it was not possible for them to comment on its impact, but he has now broken his silence on the issue.
In a first-person piece in the paper, he said it had never advised people not to immunise their children against measles but it had reflected the widespread concerns at the time about the MMR jab.
He wrote: “It is dangerous to judge this campaign outside of its time. The evidence of a link between the MMR and autism has since been discredited, but in 1997 that was not the case.
“There was genuine concern, even fear, among parents that they could be putting their children at risk.
“The Evening Post highlighted those concerns in its campaign. It gave those with worries about MMR a voice and, in keeping with the tradition of this paper, that voice was balanced by the views of those who supported the vaccine. And we weren’t alone.
“This was a nationwide concern that generated headlines across the country. To put our coverage in context, a paper was published in the medical journal The Lancet in 1998 which presented evidence that autism disorders could be caused by the vaccine. This was later retracted, but not until 2010.
“It is clear that there were genuine concerns in the mid-90s about MMR and the Post gave them full and responsible coverage.”
Jonathan, who also hosted a live webchat on the issue yesterday, said that the campaign had warned parents they had to ensure their children were protected from measles and suggested people consider the single jab alternative.
He wrote that when the MMR jab had been defended by health experts as being safe, the paper had also published stories on this.
Jonathan added: “Looking at the campaign with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to be critical. To judge it honestly and fairly, one has to consider the fear which existed at the time, the fact that medical experts were publicly expressing concerns about the vaccine and the duty of this the paper to reflect public opinion.
“What I can say with absolute certainty is that the Evening Post has always, and will continue to, put the interests of our city and our readers first. It would never seek to mislead.
“In some quarters, editors may be judged on their ability to sell newspapers, but in the regional newspaper world, we are very much a part of the communities we serve, and have an obligation to act responsibly.
“Which is why today, and over the weeks in which the measles outbreak has developed, we have taken the lead in highlighting the facts and providing the key information parents need to best protect their children.”
There were widespread concerns about the MMR jab nationwide after Dr Andrew Wakefield published a since-discredited study in The Lancet in 1998 suggesting the jab was linked with an increased risk of autism.
A report from 2000 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health linked the paper’s campaign to a drop in uptake of the vaccine in the title’s circulation area, saying it was “significantly lower” compared with the rest of Wales.