Friday, January 7, 2011

Thanks, Andrew Wakefield

Yesterday, the British Medical Journal published an analysis by journalist Brian Deer detailing his research into the breathtaking fraud committed by Andrew Wakefield, the first to publish a study linking autism with the MMR vaccine.  Wakefield published his fraudulent study in Lancet in 1998, and while it was retracted in February 2010, the damage had already been done.  The vaccination rate in the U.K. had dropped from 92% to 78.9%, with the result that not enough children were vaccinated to retain herd immunity, and there were huge measles outbreaks.  Now, the anti-vaccine movement has worldwide supporters, despite there being no credible scientific evidence linking vaccines to autism.

Brian Deer initially raised concerns about Wakefield’s Lancet study in 2004, prompting the General Medical Council to conduct one of their longest-ever hearings from 2007-2010.  By that time, Wakefield had moved to Austin, Texas, and was working as a founder of Thoughtful House, a center for anti-vaccine activist research.  When the recommendation came in February 2010 that his U.K. medical license be stripped, Wakefield resigned from Thoughtful House (though it’s unclear whether he actually resigned willingly or was effectively fired).  Three months later, in May, Wakefield’s medical license was, in fact, stripped due to his “serious professional misconduct,” with the ruling calling him “dishonest,” “unethical,” and “callous”.

Deer’s BMJ article goes into the actions taken by Wakefield to willfully distort the truth so he could provide fodder for a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.  That’s right, two years before the publication of the Lancet study, Wakefield had been recruited as part of an effort to sue vaccine manufacturers.  Wakefield’s research, using children who were also claimants in the lawsuit, had been supported to the tune of £55,000 from lawyers.  Worse, Wakefield himself was paid over £400,000 over an 8- to 10-year period.  Wakefield disclosed none of these conflicts of interest.  To this day, he insists that his research was correct and that there was no wrongdoing at all, saying that any evidence against him is merely a result of a conspiracy. 

One of Brian Deer’s closing paragraphs deals with the harm caused by Wakefield’s study, and the ensuing anti-vaccine movement in general. “As parents’ confidence slowly returned in Britain, the scare took off around the world, unleashing fear, guilt, and infectious diseases – and fueling suspicion of vaccines in general.  In addition to measles outbreaks, other infections are resurgent, with [the] state of California last summer seeing 10 babies dead from whooping cough, the worst outbreak since 1958.”  Hopefully anti-vaccine supporters will finally take note.

Deer’s article in the BMJ:

A shorter, but still thorough, recap of Deer’s article from Orac at ScienceBlogs:

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