Making Sense Of Dr. Andrew Wakefield Now

March 10, 2011

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While Dr. Andrew Wakefield's name may not be classified as "household" in the average American home, in the fields of pediatrics and parenting, his name has been synonymous with controversy for the past decade in pediatric medicine regarding a possible link between the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and long-term gastrointestinal disorders and autism, particularly a regressive type. A well-respected scientist in the field of gastrointestinal disorders in Great Britain, he became the central figure in vaccine safety by publishing a research paper out of the Royal Free Hospital in the medical journal Lancet in February 1998. Twelve collaborators, including renowned gastroenterologist Dr. John Walker-Smith, assisted in the production of the paper, though Wakefield takes all of the credit and blame for the data presented.

For background, the most interesting evidence presented reported a "temporal" relationship between normal children (12) receiving the combination MMR vaccine and behavioral abnormalities. Of the children studied, 9 were reported to have developed regressive autism within a time that would lead parents and pediatricians to believe there was a causal effect from the vaccine. The study, also largely aimed at intestinal biopsies performed of these children, shows that all had some form of clinical and microscopic findings of disease. Wakefield's article ends stating that receiving routine MMR vaccination "may be related" to a new syndrome involving children's gastrointestinal system and "neuropsychiatric dysfunction", primarily autism.

The article has been highly scrutinized by the scientific community for many years, claiming that the science has not met typical publishing standards. Quite simply, the study was not done well and results were very easy to disqualify as mere speculation, not science. In 2004, London's General Medical Council (GMC) conducted a never-before-seen investigation into the findings described by Wakefield. This step by the GMC was in response to the firestorm of concern from parents on either side of the Atlantic Ocean regarding the vaccine. In Great Britain, vaccination rates from 1998 to 2003-04 fell to a low of 80%, and subsequently, measles, a potentially fatal disease, was "declared an epidemic in England and Wales". Herd immunity, the medical term for protecting those who cannot or haven't received the vaccine required vaccination of approximately 95% of the population.

A British freelance writer, Mr. Brian Deer, has spent 7 years investigating the validity of the facts provided in the study. A month ago, recent headlines found in many of the major newspapers and medical websites have detailed his claims that Dr. Andrew Wakefield, not out of ignorance or bad medicine, deliberately "falsified" the medical histories provided by the parents of these children when the study was initiated. Deer details the parents "unaltered" medical history revealed to him through personal interviews and reviewing the medical charts from the children's pediatricians. He claims that Wakefield had both monetary and personal motives to bring down the MMR vaccine. Deer reports he profited by conducting his research and his bias against such a vaccine was well known prior to the research. Allegedly, Wakefield was retained by lawyers hoping to raise a "class action lawsuit over MMR" which paid him over $700,000 in 1996. Due to inflation, that is nearly $1,000,000 in 2010 assuming fairly equal exchange rates. He also claims that parents of the effected children were also seeking monetary compensation from MMR makers and hoped "Wakefield would help their cause". Finally, the famous Dr. John Walker-Smith was involved by Wakefield in the study for his reputation alone, knowing that Dr. Walker-Smith's endorsement would ensure the paper's publication. Deer compares Wakefield to the Piltdown Man, a British con-man claiming to have found "fossils linking man and ape in an elaborate and highly motivated hoax".

In the immediate aftermath of Deer's allegations and the GMC announcing the withdrawal of his paper, Wakefield has denied all allegations of falsifying records and taking such money that may have been a primary motive against vaccine makers. He denies the notion that he proclaimed that the MMR vaccine caused autism. In recent web posting, Wakefield supporters have aimed to discredit Deer as a "non-doctor, non-scientists, non-credentialed commentator on medicine" and the hypothesis he endorses. Wakefield notes that several independent studies have provided similar results with vaccines other than MMR, notably Hepatitis B vaccine.

I cannot ask one who supports the controversial paper to read this posting and change your mind and un-ring the bell that the Lancet article clanged in 1998. It would be naive of me to claim that no vaccine has ever been correctly associated with causing a particular disease. However, in this case, what Wakefield and Lancet did in 1998 is akin to screaming fire in a crowded theater. Without proper medical and scientific research to support his findings, he and Lancet acted irresponsibly by releasing such information without proper "fact-checking" as we call it these days. In 2011, with Facebook and Twitter, new media and even I can reach anyone with access to the internet. The editor-in-charge should have been prepared for the wide-spread response that followed, and not let the horse out of the barn.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield has been practicing medicine and working with autistic children in Austin, Texas. He was the executive director at The Thoughtful House, but his name is no longer seen on the website. He currently resides in Austin.

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