Credit the following quote to NY Times Magazine writer Susan Dominus:
"Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, blamed directly or indirectly, depending on the accuser, for irresponsibly starting a panic with tragic repercussions: vaccination rates so low that childhood diseases once all but eradicated here---whooping cough and measles among them---have re-emerged, endangering young lives."
I can't tell you how many people there have been over the years that BJ and I have heard express fear of vaccinating their babies for the routine diseases. Despite the fact that the advent of vaccinations has been heralded as the greatest medical advancement in history, a number of parents these days choose not to vaccinate their children. For many of them, this decision is borne out of fear.
In the beginning of July, Aiden Smith was still alive and battling pertussis (whooping cough). We were visiting friends in Kansas City and I had a discussion with my friend Heather, who is an emergency room pediatrician. She and I talked about the former physician Andrew Wakefield, who has had a huge hand in falsely invoking public fear about a relationship between the MMR vaccination and autism. As a psychologist, I have debated this point to friends and clients far too many times (not with Heather though; she and I are certainly on the same side!). Since the time that Aiden's battle with pertussis became so desperate and eventually fatal, the debate over the safety of vaccinations has been heavy on my heart.
So let's talk about Andrew Wakefield, shall we? Even though his claims have been debunked and he has been stripped of his medical license in the United Kingdom precisely for the damage he did in all of this mess, people are still afraid that vaccinations will give their kids autism. So what exactly did he do? First, the giant myth that lingers--that Andrew Wakefield proved a cause-effect relationship between the MMR vaccination and autistic disorder. FALSE. Let me make this clear here and in the remainder of this post: THE CLAIM THAT VACCINATIONS MAY CAUSE AUTISM IS LUDICROUS.
Let's talk about what Andrew Wakefield DID do.
He decided to join forces with a pharmaceutical company that had worked to develop an alternative vaccination for measles alone; in doing so, Wakefield stood to make tons of money if he could find a way to discredit the standard measles-mumps-rubella vaccination already in use and substitute his alternative. In addition, he decided to try to make some money by concocting a colon-related medical problem, encouraging a way to make his new diagnosis mainstream, and then selling specialized "diagnostic kits" to physicians for this specific colon problem. In doing this, Wakefield himself speculated that he could make $43 million annually.
So what did Wakefield do next?
Why, he recruited participants for a study---unethically from the beginning, I might add. First off, he acted without consent from the IRB, which is the agency that grants permission to researchers before they begin working with participants. He recruited 12 participants, which is an absurdly small sample size to try to prove anything. Wakefield claimed that all of these participants, who were children, had developed autism within days of receiving their MMR vaccination (remember, this is the exact vaccination he was TRYING to discredit for financial reasons). Truth is, three of the 12 participants never actually had a diagnosis of autistic disorder. Five of the remaining 12 had been diagnosed with autistic disorder BEFORE they ever received their MMR vaccination, and the remainder of the children (as documented by the hospital and physician records) actually began showing symptoms of autistic disorder months after the MMR vaccination administration, not days as reported by Wakefield.
Then, Wakefield subjected these developmentally-challenged children to repeated invasive procedures, including colonoscopies and lumbar punctures. Ouch! He took the laboratory records from these invasive procedures and changed the "Normal" findings to instead say "Abnormal." He reported that these children showed symptoms of a strange problem that he termed "autistic enterocolitis," which is a bunch of mumbo jumbo. But wait! How convenient! He just happened to have a "diagnostic kit" for this so-called autistic enterocolitis, and here it was, ready for sale! Ugh, you can sense my sarcasm I hope.
Wakefield continued the ruse by falsifying parent reports, plugging in numbers and other "abnormal" reports when it benefited him to do so, and otherwise blatantly lying to both discredit the MMR vaccination and plug his new "diagnostic kit" for sale. Then, he wrote up a journal article about it and The Lancet stupidly published it in 1998. They have since retracted it. Despite the onslaught of attempts, no one has ever been able to replicate his 'findings.'
So where is Wakefield now? Well, the United Kingdom nailed him, charged him with scientific fraud and the abuse of developmentally-challenged children, and stripped him of his ability to practice medicine in the UK. He now lives in Austin, Texas, where he continues to stir up trouble, claim innocence, and attempt to sue truth-tellers for defamation (his most recent defamation suit was dismissed by a Texas judge only two days ago).
Wakefield's incompetence and flat-out maliciousness has had far-reaching effects, beyond what these poor 12 children had to endure. The quote that leads off this post refers to the number of diseases that have resurged recently, likely in part due to the anti-vaccination movement that was strengthened by Wakefield. And if all of this isn't absurd enough, consider this statement by J.B. Handley, co-founder of an anti-vaccination group: "To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one."
It's ridiculous and heart-breaking that babies like Aiden have lost their lives to diseases that should have been eradicated. People often look to physicians for their expertise, and I find it particularly egregious when physicians abuse that power. Another point for people to be aware of is the importance of adults knowing their own vaccine status. Some vaccinations require that adults receive boosters for them years later in order for them to remain effective throughout the lifespan; pertussis is an excellent example of this type of vaccination. For references and additional information on this topic, check out these links: