Abstract Background The report of an hypothesised link between measles–mumps–rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism in 1998 became a major public health issue in the United Kingdom (UK), leaving most experts surprised by the overwhelming influence it had on public opinion about MMR vaccination. Coverage rates fell dramatically, and did not start to recover until 2004. Could this public reaction have been predicted? Methods We used Sandman's model of components predicting community outrage to assess the MMR controversy. Results The controversy fulfilled all of Sandman's 12 primary components and six of the eight additional components. Conclusions The Sandman model provided a useful framework to analyse this controversy and explained a significant portion of the community reaction and subsequent fall in vaccination coverage rates.