A Verdict on the Vaccination Boogeyman
Have you ever wondered why, exactly, vaccines are erroneously associated with autism? I'll tell you: In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield held a press conference to announce that his research had revealed a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He published his findings in the respected independent medical journal The Lancet, and spent the next few years promoting his vaccine-autism "concerns" through media outlets like the TV news magazine 60 Minutes.
The result was panic, a vaccination rates nosedive, and the resurrection of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles.
In 2004, it was revealed that Wakefield had also been conducting a separate, simultaneous study funded by lawyers seeking compensation for clients who claimed their children suffered from vaccine damage. Ten of Wakefield's twelve original paper co-authors, horrified by Wakefield's conflict of interest as well as the public health crisis they'd help cause, issued an official retraction in The Lancet [PDF], stating, "We wish to make it clear that in [Wakefield's] paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient."
But the retraction wasn't nearly as newsworthy as the original claims, and besides, it came too late: Anti-vaccination fears had been established, and were burgeoning. They were harnessed by gullible torch-wielding celebrity Jenny McCarthy, who leads media crusades to demand the "truth" about the vaccines she claims caused her son's autism, even while she encourages the enraged and the credulous to dismiss any evidence that contradicts her "Mommy Instinct" on the matter. Organizations like Autism Speaks milk the "tragedy" of autism to raise millions of dollars, then divert a disproportionate amount of those precious funds towards vaccine/autism research instead of using them to support autism families and adult autistics in need.
Wakefield has always denied any wrongdoing, even as the fallout from the Lancet retraction spurred his relocation from the UK to the United States. He has even occasionally gone on the offensive, using the media arm of Thoughtful House, his US autism organization, to try to discredit Brian Deer, the journalist whose ongoing research first revealed the extent of Wakefield's questionable actions. Though I can't fault Wakefield for acting out, as Deer's efforts led to Wakefield being investigated by the UK's General Medical Council (GMC) for professional misconduct.
Finally, after more than two years of expert witness testimonials, hearings, and deliberation, the GMC has reached a verdict [PDF]: They determined that Wakefield "acted unethically" during his original study. They also found that he violated the non-patient-contact guidelines of his research contract, that he conducted risky procedures such as spinal taps without sufficient basis, that he manipulated his findings, and that in general he conducted his research "dishonestly and irresponsibly." (Note that the GMC specifically did not address whether or not Wakefield's conclusions were valid. They didn't have to. The Lancet had already made its retraction.)
Wakefield continues to have staunch supporters despite the GMC's verdict, which is unsurprising to thinking members of the autism community. Wakefield has long been a darling to contrarian organizations like Age of Autism and Generation Rescue, who never stop confidently proclaiming that a horse is a cow, and encourage supporters to bully anyone who hears the animal neighing. They hypocritically castigate mild-mannered vaccine proponent Paul Offit for making money off vaccine patents though that is his job, while conveniently ignoring one of the goals behind Wakefield's Lancet study: to impugn the MMR vaccine so he could patent (and one assumes, reap the financial rewards from) a replacement vaccine.
How has Wakefield himself responded to the GMC's verdict? He keeps mooing. He keeps denying any wrongdoing. Just keep reminding yourself that he's a unethical cow.
My thanks to the following bloggers for providing links, and for sharing their great big skeptic brains:
- Feburary 2, 2010: The Lancet officially retracts the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al.
- February 18, 2010: Wakefield resigns from Thoughtful House, an Austin, Texas autism center.