The "Elaborate Fraud" Linking Autism to Vaccines

BlogHer Original Post

It's about time. Researcher Andrew Wakefield's 1998 MMR study -- which kicked off a decade of misplaced fears about vaccines causing autism before the study was officially retracted -- has been declared an "elaborate fraud" by the British Medical Journal (BMJ). I fully hope that, as BMJ's editors asserted, "Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare," because when the public's faith in vaccines wavers and vaccination rates decline, children fall ill from vaccine-preventable diseases, and some of them die.

I first saw the news during the late afternoon witching hour while I was cooking the family dinner, prepping for a meeting, and ignoring the post-holiday chaos in our house. Even amidst the overwhelm, I couldn't ignore the overflowing of my Tweetdeck stream as folks both inside and outside the autism community spread USA Today, CNN, and NPR articles on Wakefield's latest disgrace. I have to admit, I felt no small amount of schadenfreude over the public flogging, being a parent who once fell prey to the anti-vaccination movement's party line when I was in crisis and desperate to help my son, and before my rational self re-emerged. It is comforting to see legitimate science championed as Wakefield is once again revealed to be a liar, a cheat, and the mercenary orchestrator of bad science at the expense of vulnerable children (accusations he continues to level at his detractors).

You don't need to take my word for it. Wakefield buries himself quite ably in an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper [video], raging about conspiracies and desperately holding up his book to the camera -- as if finding a publisher somehow invalidates the multiple official inquiries and extensive investigative journalism that led to losing his British medical license among other humiliations. Humiliations that now include Anderson Cooper telling Wakefield to his face that he's a liar.

Still, Wakefield supporters such as parent JB Handley from "Jenny McCarthy's Generation Rescue," an anti-vaccination autism organization, refuse to back down, clinging to anecdotal evidence and debunked research like Generation Rescue's own Fourteen Studies and the Infant Macque paper that won't go away. Handley also was interviewed on CNN [video], where his defense of Wakefield consisted of denying evidence he didn't agree with, referencing his personal beliefs, and citing flawed studies. (As of this writing, Jenny McCarthy herself has declined to comment on the Wakefield "fraud.")

Handley is not alone. Parents like Tammy, who left the following comment on Handley's CNN interview, remain convinced that Wakefield is not just falsely accused but a hero:

I had a perfectly normal child at birth in 1996. When she took her MMR vaccination 2 months later my daughter was diagnosis with autism. Now my claim is Facts! I appreciate Dr Andrew Wakefield study and I love the way he stood up to Anderson Cooper also I will no longer watch Anderson Cooper ever again. Parents please embrace Dr Andrew Wakefield study and research and lets stand together to ensure the vaccines will not harm the next generations.

Other Wakefield parent supporters, including Kim Stagliano, managing editor of the anti-vaccination blog Age of Autism, follow Wakefield's example in crying conspiracy. Kim specifically accuses anti-vaccination movement critic Paul Offit of using the timing of the BMJ's announcement to promote his new book, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All (in the same interview and same paragraph that unironically cites Kim's own new book: All I Can Handle: I'm No Mother Theresa), even though Offit himself will not personally profit from his book, as all its royalties "will help fund the Autism Science Foundation."

With criticism flying fast and thick in both directions, there is one thing we all need to remember when speaking to parents who still believe their child's autism was caused by vaccines: those people are in real pain. They want answers and need support. They are likely not getting either, except through the anti-vaccination movement's mostly negativity-filled channels, which is why they become so entrenched and remain in denial. But they are also the ones responsible for the upbringing of a child with autism. We need to be mindful of those children, and help their parents gravitate towards towards positive communities and attitudes, plus parent and adult autistic role models. I admire Hopeful Parents, and also helped found The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism for this specific purpose.

You can also tell parents who continue to worry about a link between autism and vaccines what Age of Autism's own media editor Anne Dachel wrote:

An editor once wrote to me that I had a lot of compelling evidence, but what I was talking about was a conspiracy involving the federal health agencies, the medical community and the vaccine makers. That could never happen. There's too much oversight for that. Case closed.

The case is not quite closed in everyone's mind, not yet. It took years for vaccination doubts to spread, and it may take years for them to truly peter out. And there may always be a vocal band of evidence-blind, autism-focused, anti-vaccination hardliners. But I think we've reached the real tipping point in public perception, and that from this moment on, it will be a real rarity to hear someone ask, "Do you think vaccines cause autism?" and a standard to hear, "Can you believe people used to think vaccines cause autism?"

Additional reports:

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Shannon Des Roches Rosa writes at ThinkingAutismGuide.com, BlogHer.com, and Squidalicious.com.

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