Panorama and the case of Adam Morrish (Private Eye MMR Special report May 2002)

IN February 2002 the BBC’s Panorama told the tragic story of 21-year-old Adam Morrish, who is slowly dying from SSPE (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis) —a degenerative condition similar to vCJD but caused by the measles virus attacking the brain.

In Panorama’s investigation of the MMR/autism controversy, Adam’s plight provided a powerful reason for having the jab. The programme said he had been exposed to measles after sitting near an unvaccinated child on a bus. Curiously, it did not say if Adam had been vaccinated or not, which raised two significant questions.

If Adam had been vaccinated, that might suggest the vaccine had not worked, which in itself would be worrying. But, if he had received MMR, could his vaccine shot have been to blame?

In fact Adam did receive an MMR booster some two to three years before he began to develop SSPE shortly before his 12th birthday. However, he had been exposed to natural wild measles in 1982 when he was only 15 months old, before vaccination. Panorama said that because the usual progress of SSPE takes several years, it was much more probable that his fatal infection was caused by the wild measles he suffered as a toddler, rather than by the vaccine he received later.

The programme makers said they and the Morrish family decided not to reveal that Adam had had MMR because it would "confuse" the issue. But the issue of SSPE is already very confused.

Although vaccine manufacturers have said SSPE has been recorded as an extremely rare adverse event, and the Vaccine Damage Payment Unit has paid out for vaccine-induced SSPE, the government now says it will no longer do so. This is because brain biopsy studies of 11 children in the UK who suffered SSPE all revealed wild strain measles — even in five vaccinated children with no history of exposure to wild measles. The health department suggests those children must have had a sub-clinical exposure to natural measles before vaccination. But the numbers on which this is based are very small.

What is known is that SSPE is very rare— some studies have put it at between or in 100,000 and one in a million. A study by a team of researchers in Ankara, Turkey, published in the medical journal Paediatrics looked at the histories of 350 victims of the disease, some vaccinated, some not. It found the onset of SSPE symptoms following exposure to natural measles was seven years while after vaccination it was three-and-half years — a time span very similar to Adam's without biopsies, however, no one can say for sure what the trigger was in the Turkish cases or indeed in Adam Morrish’s case