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The MMR vaccine: public health, private fears
The MMR vaccine: public health, private fears

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9 Reading 2: Communication and miscommunication of risk: understanding UK parents' attitudes to combined MMR vaccination

9.1 Communication and miscommunication of risk

Bellaby, P. (2003) ‘Communication and miscommunication of risk: understanding UK parents' attitudes to combined MMR vaccination’, British Medical Journal, 327, 27 September 2003, pp. 725–28. Reproduced by permission from the BMJ Publishing Group; Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd; P A Photos.

In this article on the public perception of risks Paul Bellaby considers three examples of risks to children in the UK – an insignificant risk (autism caused by MMR vaccine), a real but probably small risk (vCJD from BSE), and a real and demonstrably larger risk (injuries from road crashes) – and contrasts the perceptions of the risks by parents

Science cannot prove a negative, but, where their children are concerned, parents want to be assured that risk is zero. Would establishing a comprehensive ‘Richter scale’ of risks remove that misunderstanding? If not, then what accounts for miscommunication of risk and how might it be overcome? In this article I try to provide answers by considering public perception of three risks, each of a different order, all involving children:

  • Autism linked to the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination

  • Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) arising from food containing the causative agent for bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE)

  • Injury and death in road transport crashes.