Who is to blame for the measles epidemic in Britain?

Health officials in Britain say the country is in the grip of the worst outbreak of measles and have blamed the 20-year high on a loss of confidence in the MMR vaccination.

Some of that blame has been laid squarely at the feet of the doctor who sparked the MMR scare.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield's scientific paper published eight years ago caused millions to shun the vaccination for fear that their children might contract autism.

Fears instigated by Wakefield of a link between MMR, regressive autism and a rare bowel disorder fuelled concern over the triple jab - for measles, mumps and rubella - despite the insistence of government experts and all the Royal Colleges that it is safe.

Wakefield has since been discredited and faces as many as ten counts of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council (GMC) for among other things publishing "inadequately founded" research, obtaining funding "improperly" and subjecting children to "unnecessary and invasive investigations" without proper ethical approval.

But bringing the doctor to justice is a slow job as some of the charges against Wakefield, are some of the most extensive seen and are not expected to be heard until early next year.

The council have the power to strike Wakefield off the medical register and it promises to be one of the most high-profile adjudications seen.

Wakefield who has been shunned by colleagues in Britain now runs a business in Austin, Texas, selling surgical tests for autistic children.

The GMC have requested the hearing in an attempt to obtain vital key documents Wakefield has said he has lost or destroyed and follows more than two years of trying.

Experts are anxious to get the case over with as the supposed link between MMR and autism continues to be raised in the media and has had an impact on community health.

Britain is now in the grip of what has every sign of becoming a measles epidemic and the first child in 14 years was killed in March by the virus.

Clusters of infections in Surrey and Yorkshire, have rocketed the number of confirmed cases this year to 449, the largest number since the MMR jab was introduced in 1988.

Dr. Wakefield's critics say the return of what was once a common disease is almost entirely the result of the MMR scare provoked by him.

A paper published by the former gastroenterologist in The Lancet medical journal in February 1998 was the trigger for all that has since followed.

The paper which appeared scientific, claimed that Wakefield and his team had come across a link between the MMR jab - the combined inoculation against measles, mumps and rubella - and the onset of autism in 12 children who had passed through the hospital.

In order to lay the matter finally to rest the Department of Health is to carry out an inquiry into whether the MMR jab has caused autism and bowel disorders in children and have agreed that tests should be carried out on the children whose families claim they were damaged by the vaccine.

Over 2000 families say that their children suffered a regressive form of autism and, in some cases, severe bowel problems following the MMR vaccination and initial tests on half a dozen British children with severe bowel disorders, autism and, in one case, severe epilepsy, carried out in preparation for potential legal action, apparently found traces of the MMR strain of measles in their guts, spinal fluid and in one child's brain.

However many of the cases have been dropped after the withdrawal of legal aid, but the findings have continued to cause concern among parents.

It is hoped that the inquiry will allow government scientists to explain what the vaccine virus is doing in the children's bodies and whether it may be responsible for their poor health or their autism.

Although the Department has not altered its stance that MMR is safe and a better option than single jabs, but it has agreed that the parents' claims will be investigated by leading specialists.

A new study has found measles virus in the guts of 85 per cent of children with a regressive form of autism and early analysis by researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina has found the measles strain is identical to the one used in MMR.

The findings back Wakefield's claims but the GMC is also investigating his former colleague, Simon Murch now a professor of child health at Warwick University, and Professor John Walker-Smith, the former head of gastroenterology at the Royal Free, who retired in 2000.

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