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Using statistics to safeguard public health

Open University statistical research is helping assess the safety of vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs, reduce costs, and improve the timeliness and quality of evidence for health-related policy decisions.

Key aspects of this research

  • Developed the self-controlled case series (SCCS) method which has profoundly influenced epidemiological studies
  • Provides a fast, low-cost, reliable way to assess the safety and efficacy of drugs and vaccines
  • Enables quicker and better-informed medical decisions impacting on major public health issues
  • Provided the first evidence to disprove the supposed link between MMR and autism

Vaccination vials

The self-controlled case series (SCCS) method, developed by statistician Professor Paddy Farrington, is a novel way of conducting epidemiological studies. It rose to prominence in 1999 when it provided the first substantive evidence that the claim of an association between the MMR vaccine and autism was unfounded.

Unlike the standard case-control method, the SCCS does not require separate controls, instead it uses each individual as their own control. This overcomes biases associated with the selection of individuals for treatment, generating better-quality evidence upon which public health and medical decisions are based.

Simple, cheap and rapid

The SCCS method … provided the first substantive evidence that the claim of an association between the MMR vaccine and autism was unfounded.

It is particularly valuable when analysing data from electronic databases as these are especially prone to biases. And because it requires only cases, the method is simple, cheap and rapid to apply.

The SCCS method has been further developed by Professor Farrington, currently Professor of Statistics at The Open University, and OU colleagues, and has been widely applied, having a profound influence on the practice of pharmacoepidemiology.

The method is recommended by international agencies including the World Health Organization (WHO) and is widely used by health practitioners within national public health agencies, including the Centre for Disease Control (USA), Public Health England (UK) and many other national and regional public health bodies. It has also influenced practice within the private sector pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

Flu and childhood vaccines

It has been used to study the safety of influenza and childhood vaccines and the effectiveness of pandemic ’flu vaccinations.

The SCCS method has also been used in a wide range of other medical studies including assessment of the incidence of depression in patients with heart disease or diabetes, assessment of the risks and adverse events associated with prescription medications, studies of accidents associated with medication and drug use and analysis of pathological vascular events associated with both disease and the treatment of disease.

Professor Farrington was awarded a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award in 2011 and the Royal Statistical Society’s Bradford Hill medal in 2013.

Investigating the safety of vaccines



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