Following the ‘brain damage’ scare and drop-off in vaccination rates, there were several large outbreaks of whopping cough reported. These were used by both supporters and opponents of the vaccine as evidence to support their cases. This was a unique unplanned experiment. Never before had immunisation, once it was in place, dropped off to such a low level. This allowed an exceptional opportunity to assess the real value of the vaccine.
It also has a relevance to today, because Dr David Salisbury, the government doctor in charge of immunisation, compares the situation with whooping cough in the 1970s to that with the MMR now. In the 1970s and 1980s, most parents opted to leave out the whooping cough component. “Parents thought they were choosing the safer option by not having the whooping cough vaccine, but in fact they were putting their children at risk,” said Dr Salisbury in 2001.1 “There were at least 200,000 extra cases of whooping cough recorded and 100 deaths from the infection in the 1970s and 1980s. That situation resonates very loudly with where we are today with MMR.” At that time, claims Dr Salisbury, it took five or six years to discover that the original suggested link between whooping cough and brain damage was false. That is one view. I would argue that the link was never false. The government is unlikely to have paid out large sums in compensation to brain-damaged children under the vaccine compensation programme (introduced in 1979 as a direct result of concern over the side-effects of the whooping cough vaccine) if the vaccine had not been the cause.
I shall look at the outbreaks that coincided with the drop in immunisation to see whether Dr Salisbury was correct. Bear with me as we study these figures in some detail because it does give us a unique opportunity, which has not happened before or since, to study the effectiveness of a vaccine. Go to 'Whooping cough cases'