South Wales Evening Post editor Jonathan Roberts has defended his paper after claims that a campaign it led in the late 1990s has contributed to a measles outbreak in the Swansea area.
Last week BBC Today reported reported: "Health service officials claim that one of the main reasons Swansea is at the centre of the epidemic is because the local Evening Post ran a campaign raising concerns about the MMR vaccine in the late 90s."
A 2000 report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health said the Evening Post's MMR Parent's fight for facts campaign was followed by a 13.6 per cent decline in MMR vaccine uptake in its circulation area. The report said that the statistics suggested that the "SWEP campaign has had a measurable and unhelpful impact over and above any adverse national publicity".
Roberts has previously declined to comment, beyond noting that the campaign predated the current staff of the paper. Official figures state that there are currently 581 measles cases among children and young people in the Swansea area.
Writing today Roberts said: "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.
"Our campaign reflected the concerns of parents, it told their stories, it called for answers, it wanted clarity. What it did not do was tell people to avoid immunising their children against measles – or mumps, or rubella.
"It actually warned parents they had to ensure their children were protected. It said measles was not a disease to be taken lightly. What it did do was suggest people considered the options, sought medical advice, looked at the single jab alternative. And when health experts came out and defended the MMR jab as safe, the paper printed those stories too.
"That is not to say I disagree with the view that the campaign was hard-hitting. It was. It gave a front page voice to anxious parents who believed the MMR may have given their children autism.
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."