The strange case of Ex-Dr Wakefield and the MMR vaccine…

Andrew Wakefield is the ex-doctor, whose scant regard for scientific accuracy or ethics has led to him being struck off the medical register. Yesterday the General Medical Council (GMC) found him guilty of serious professional misconduct, having found him guilty last January of having “showed a callous disregard” for the suffering of children, saying also that he had “abused his position of trust.”

Wakefield has caused untold harm to autistic people by leading those falsely describing the condition as vaccination damage with all negative rhetoric they propagate. Thousands of parents were confused by the reporting in most major media outlet of his woeful, fraudulent (and retracted) Lancet paper. The disgraced ex-doctor’s utterly lacks remorse for having falsified his data, experimented on children, tricked patients, the ethics board and his employers. Together with a credulous media, he is culpable in the decision of so many parents to avoid vaccinating their children.

The subsequent rise in measles cases caused death and disability in children when it could have been avoided.

Andrew Wakefield was a gut surgeon, a maverick with a hunch and in the pay of lawyers. He held the patent on a rival measles vaccine and stood to benefit if somehow he could sully the MMR vaccine approved of by the health department and have it replaced with his own measles vaccine. For a while he tried to link the MMR with Crohn’s disease (pdf) to no avail, before being recruited to support a failed attempt by a group of parents to sue the makers of the MMR vaccine for (as they claimed) having caused their children’s autism. Wakefield wasn’t a paediatrician but still ordered invasive and painful procedures on children to obtain samples which were analysed at a badly run lab, then he proceded to concoct the results he needed to make out there was a strong association.

Wakefield can’t handle the rigours of engaging with the scientific community and resorts to the circus of the chat show and YouTube interview to make his case. He’s penned a book in which he sets out his defense; it’s all a big conspiracy of governments, scientists and pharmaceutical companies. He called none of the parents who even yet adulate the man as a hero, to give evidence at his GMC trial, preferring instead to sneak back to the USA to try yet another way to find the fame and respect he clearly craves.

The time and money spent attempting to reassure the public of the MMR’s safety could have been used to do make actual progress in health and science. If the smallest fraction of that effort had focused instead on helping autistic people live and thrive, the benefits would be immense.

And Andrew Wakefield should have formed a rock band.

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  • Anto

    To be fair to this guy there’s a huge industry of “alternative medicine” pedalling quack remedies and snakeoil, who pounced on this paper, which otherwise would have been largely dismissed as speculative by most readers. They too should be ashamed of the damage they have done.

  • “To be fair to this guy…”

    Andrew Wakefield has a great deal more fairness given to him than was good for anyone.

    Seen this?

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The Media was certainly too credulous and knew a good story.
    But likewise the Public were “too credulous”.
    There was a time that Doctors were trusted……like lawyers, politicians, clergymen, estate agents, accountants,bankers and……journalists.
    Theres a whole world of so-called “professionals” out there that we appear to be stuck with.
    “Trust me……..Im a doctor”
    “Trust me….Im a politician”
    “Trust me….Im a solicitor”
    “Trust me…..Im a priest/minister”
    “Trust me……Im an estate agent”
    “Trust me…….Im an accountant”
    “Trust me……Im a banker”
    “Trust me…..Im a journalist”

    All of them with very powerful unions……oops I mean “professional bodies” to fight their corner……oops be ethical…..against any interference by the punters……oops public.

    This story had legs. ONE of the reasons it had legs was that a lot of people dont believe a word the Doctors say. Of course the Doctors will say that those ranged against them are quacks and the gullible.
    We are left in the position of HAVING to trust them each time we take a child to hospital or each time an elderly relative is in care.

    This double standard indeed hypocrisy which a lot of the general public have is manifested in the number of kidney donor cards which are properly filled in.
    We would all want to see that our child gets a new kidney if needed.
    But a high number of us wont give consent for our childs kidney to be taken.
    Hypocrisy of course but born out of this NEED FOR and DISTRUST of the medical profession.
    Now of course Sluggerites are reasonable, informed and intelligent people and no doubt 99.9999% are carrying donor cards but I doubt it.
    And no doubt the same percentage would have no problem saying take my wifes liver/heart/kidney…….but more likely the percentage here is a lot lower.
    And no doubt 99.99999% see no problem with “assumed consent”.
    Or maybe not.

    So the relunctance of some families to “trust” the medical profession is more widespread than this very sad case of ex Dr Wakefield and MMR. Indeed in some quarters he will be seen as a victim of the medical esablishment…..which to the likes of the sophisticates like me on Slugger O’Toole makes no sense…….but theres a lot of people out there that believes there is a “medical establishment” which is too kind to doctors ……havent we had a few local hospitals accused of that kinda thing recently.

  • apollo293867

    I have long thought that this is a story that demonstrates the problems with having a news media driven by competition and therefore obsessed by the need to get the next headline. Yes its really exciting to be there when “Breaking News” flashes up. However with every MMR story and katie price revalation is anybody questioning news valus????

    Can you imagine being a journo with no grasp of medicine being given the MMR story.

    “MMR causes autism, doctor says so, lets back the little guy versus Labour government forcing us to use unsafe drug.”

    All the papers pile on trying to outdo the other.

    “Blair refuses to answer re son’s Vaccination shock”

    “Public kept in dark on MMR”

    When all the while honourable professionals are trying to damp down, at a cost of millions, a public panic created by a charlatan and propagated by a media drunk on its own power, and blind to its public responsibilities.

    This country used to have an understanding about free speech, now it just makes me sick.

  • Great blog post Sharon thanks for helping me to understand this in greater detail

  • Great link cheers for sharing that Paul

  • apollo293867

    Brilliant analysis

  • Really enjoyed this post…hope you don’t mind if I re-post it on my fb page XXX

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Thank you.
    The fact is that on maybe five occasions in our lives we will HAVE to trust a solicitor with conveyancing a house or dealing with our compo claim for whiplash.
    But we will all say we dont trust solicitors.
    And we will be trusting a priest/minister to get our mothers funeral right and tell the world we dont trust priests and ministers.

    Likewise all of us…whether seeing the birth of our children or the professional care that a relative has enjoyed…will have reason to be grateful to a doctor.
    But dont we all know someone who has had a bad deal and had a less than honest answer from the “Complaints” Dept at the local Hospital Trust.
    And we will watch the “Spotlight” programme on the shortcomings of a local hospital and say that the doctors cant be trusted.

  • heal thyself

    Good stuff. There’s a fantastic C4 documentary on this charlatan and his paertner in crime. It may have been called: “MMR – What They Don’t Want You To Know.” In this case the “They” is not big medicine, government or state agencies but Wakefield, his cronies and those misguided women/groupies who seem to have lost all sense of reason. The doc is about four or five years old but should be available online. Might have been a Cutting Edge doc. It will double your knowledge of the issues with every sentence.

  • joeCanuck

    Follow the money.

  • Drumlin Rock

    So now ex Dr Wakefield has been held to some account, I persume the journalist who “broke the story”, and also fueled his campaign without properly investigating his claims, will also be held to account? right? yeah likely…

  • Mick Fealty

    MMR: What They Didn’t Tell You… It’s not current available on 4OD…

  • Society has always had a love-hate relationship with the professions. To be a professional, be it a doctor, solicitor, scientist, engineer or whatever, is to have a higher level of education than the average member of society, and therefore to understand things that the average person doesn’t. The ever-present danger of this is the development of a priesthood.

    People’s emotional reactions to things they don’t understand (and have no interest in) are generally very simple – either bemusement, apathy or fear. Laypeople (and journalists fall very largely into this category) cannot reasonably be expected to react rationally to technical issues. The only solution to this is mass education – not necessarily in the technical details of the professions, but in the methods by which professional decisions are made. Without any understanding of the decision-making processes (such as the scientific method), public discourse is reduced to blind speculation based on revealed information. Theology, in other words. No wonder people see no value difference between science and aura crystals.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Drumlin Rock,
    I detect a certain Irony.
    But as you and I both know journalists are exempt from normal rules of behaviour.
    Its a strange thing that the civil service has RED TAPE. The Working Class Trade Unions have DEMARCATION and the professions (including in this case “Journalists”) have ETHICS.
    ETHICS covers a multitude of sins.
    Any Journalist dragged before the toothless Press Complaints Commission……or even the LAW……will be supported to the hilt by Journalists waxing lyrical about Freedom of Speech (Jerome Quinn appears to be an exception to this rule).
    When Lawyers investigate Lawyers.
    When Accountants investigate Accountants
    When Doctors investigate Doctors……well in those cases the Journos are leading the charge for the General Public.
    Yet they hold that only Journalists can investigate Journalists.
    Their hypocrisy knows no limit.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Mr Gallagher,
    Journalists have “ethics” and therefore consider themselves to be a “profession” of sorts.
    They are therefore very much part of the establishment and not the fearless, detached “Hold The Front Page” clones of Woodward and Bernstein they think they are.
    They are very much part of the “Priesthood” interpreting the runes of politics and current affairs for the rest of us.
    They decide what we will know and what we wont know.

    And they all own blackberries.

  • Glencoppagagh

    ‘but theres a lot of people out there that believes there is a “medical establishment” which is too kind to doctors’

    Not nearly enough. The vast majority are still cringeingly deferential towards unfailingly “marvellous” doctors and if something does go wrong they’re usually more interested in grabbing the compo than ensuring that the physician at fault is properly sanctioned.

  • Mack

    Saliency bias – people hugely overestimate small risks with a big impact.

    The best response from those who knew the truth would have been to highlight the dangers of Measels (brain damage, deafness and death in children), Mumps (meneginitis sometimes co-occurs with mumps) and Reubella. A few greiving mothers, and a brain damaged child. would have done the trick. Instead the response was technical people giving rational explanations that went over the heads of many, and hysterical tv presenters imploring the public to think of the children (getting Autism). Despite the flimsy evidence, that’s why he was able to do such damage.

  • fjh:

    Perhaps it would be better to point out that the priesthood of one field (e.g. journalists) are usually no better informed than laypeople outside their field. There is a tendency for the perception of authority in one field (or even just general fame) to spill over into other fields, particularly where the distinction between fields is not well understood.

    Mack:

    Fight fire with fire? It’s a good point. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to effectively counter an emotional argument with a rational one.

  • Drumlin Rock

    But the media wernt playing ball, they had their agenda set and didnt want to back down, the MSM are culpable for the results of this and should be held to account.

  • There’s no doubt that the media played a huge role in all this. Ben Goldacre has a chapter in his excellent (apart from one line) “Bad Science” book on the role the MSM played in propagating this appalling scenario;
    “[the MSM] drove this story cynically, irrationally and willfully onto the front pages for nine solid years…they overextrapolated from one study into absurdity, while studiously ignoring all reassuring data, and all subsequent refutations.”

    In 1998 when the Lnacet paper was published and Wakefield said in a press conference that he recommended parents avoid the MMR, the MSM didn’t make much of his claims. My daughter was born that year and though a few of my middle class chums worried a bit about the vaccine, only one person paid for single vaccines. The real press frenzy started a few years later and this time it wasn’t science writers telling the story in back pages, but editorial writers and “voices of reason” like Melanie Philips. Chanel 5 (as it was the known) made an drama about the “great man” fighting for all the poor mums whose perfect children were (as they presented) pulled into autism following vaccination.

    The effects snowballed and Wakefield thrived in the adulation, moving away to make a mint in a Texas clinic specialising in unnecessary medical procedures and unproven treatments on autistic children until even they had to sack him this winter. He worked the anti-vaccine conference circuit and had lavish profile pieces penned in major newspapers. He got away with claiming the mantle of Vaclav Havel in defending his actions, pretending that instead of knowing he’d cheated and lied about his supposed science, he was the Galileo figure fighting to make sure the truth was made known.

    The other main culprit in all this is the medical establishment. Few doctors spoke out publicly against the vaccine nonsense, and it took a journalist, Brian Deer, to uncover the real truth about Wakefield. One of the few doctors who has always been willing to engage about this is Dr Michael Fitzpatrick who has a good post on “failures of scientific quality control” in Spiked.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Indeed …the Media
    Power without responsibility is the pregrogative pf the harlot throoughout the Ages……Stanley Baldwin

  • harry monro

    Thats the Dr Mike Fiztpatrick of Spiked (formally the Revolutionary Communist Party) who believes there is no Aids epidemic, that its a myth of the “AIDS industry”. Love your idea of who to trust on medical issues.
    Wakefield was certainly wrong but in the interests of natural justice etc, how many of the panel that struck him off had links to the drugs industry, just asking?

  • wee buns

    The case against Wakefield reads as a joke to the initiated, meaning those of us who deal with the “dishonestly and irresponsibly” and permanent damage done to children by the so called medical profession, day in & day out.

    Vaccine damage is riffe & real & hugely more serious/ugly than the small numbers of deaths related to measles, mumps & rubella.

    This grabbed me as particularly rich:
    ‘he was accused of carrying out invasive tests on vulnerable children which were against their best interests’.
    The vaccination programme described exactly!

    Judging by the bog standard propaganda spewed out by the medical establishment; fear mongering, non information, they have a nerve attacking journalism: pot, kettles, blackness etc.

  • wee buns

    Perfectly valid question. Why SO defensive?

  • Vaccine damage is riffe & real & hugely more serious/ugly than the small numbers of deaths related to measles, mumps & rubella.

    And remind me exactly why there are so few deaths these days related to those diseases? That number is irrelevant. The relevant number is how many children would die if there was no vaccination? Remember the significant increase in the number of cases due to a fall in the number of children being vaccinated.

  • wee buns

    The vast majority of us over 35’s have survived the then ”childhood illnessnes’ such as mumps, measles, rubella, without permanent damage.
    Having no interest in exchanging sets of propaganda askewed data, let me restrict myslef to the assertion that the vaccination programme (MMR & otherwise) is a massive experiment with untold long term consequensences, which can not be foisted upon the public as ‘safe’ , ‘scientific’ or even ‘protective’ against the said diseases. There is absolutely no evidence of that. Having challenged the medical profession to provide such has proven fruitless.

  • I’m over 35 (just) and I wouldn’t say the “vast majority” of my contemporaries caught anything worse than chicken pox. And if you can’t come up with some non-skewed data for us, your assertions are worth nothing. I suppose you think the eradication of smallpox wasn’t safe, scientific or protective either?

  • Driftwood

    Childrens birthday parties can be such fun….

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/05/disgrace.php

    Yuk!

  • Dr Fitzpatrick has written a decent article on the failings of the scientific publication bodies and has consistently spoken out against the MMR scaremongering. I neither know nor care about his former political affiliations and won’t be derailed by your unproven opinion on what he thinks about AIDS.
    Whether the panel that spent years investigating Wakefield’s many failings as a doctor and scientist are linked to the drug industry (the pharma shill ambit) in any way is not a valid question. He failed in his duty of care- that’s what counts.

  • Dr Fitzpatrick has written a decent article on the failings of the scientific publication bodies and has consistently spoken out against the MMR scaremongering. I neither know nor care about his former political affiliations and won’t be derailed by your unproven opinion on what he thinks about AIDS.
    Whether the panel that spent years investigating Wakefield’s many failings as a doctor and scientist are linked to the drug industry (the pharma shill gambit) in any way is not a valid question. He failed in his duty of care- that’s what counts.

  • Wee buns, the man has been found guilty after a long and involved trial and given the serious nature of his many failings, has been struck off. The benefits of vaccination are easily apparent and I won’t bother to discuss them with an antivaccinator. Vaccination can in no way compare to the crimes of Wakefield against the children he was supposed to be helping and the many others caught up in the aftermath of his self-promotional campaign against vaccines.

  • harry monro

    sorry I thought we discussing problematic uses of science, Fitzpatrick’s views on AIDS are not an “umproven opinion” of mine, go to Spiked you can read them. Now I think this idea of an AIDS industry inventing an AIDS epidemic is far more strange and damaging than Wakefields errors. But to each their own: I’m old enough to remember thalidomide so I think I can understand why some parent became paranoid about MMR.

  • wee buns

    Fennell
    Excuse me if I reserve judgement on Wakefield’s case (until/if ever, the full & factual details are available).

    My comments are on the laughable hypocrisy & outrage of a multi billion industry, who are under question themselves. Thalidomide already has been mentioned (no criminal charges there btw…). But to bring the situation up to date, try the Jane Burgermeister case; she filed criminal charges against Baxter & The World Health Organization, alleging bio terrorism with the intent to commit mass murder…err…something about an incident whereby 72 kilos of vaccine material contaminated with live bird flu virus was distributed to sixteen laboratories. On purpose, she claims. For financial gain.
    Kinda makes Wakefield look like a boy in a small sandbox.
    Yet here we have a thread full of outrage at….journos…and….and….silly people who refuse to believe doctors.

  • wee buns

    Andrew
    The vaccination debate is in itself, a huge field of work; one which causes many parents to make the effort (weeks & months of reading, deliberating etc to make responsibly informed decisions).
    I have already done this work. As a result I would allow my children to be vaccinated *over*my*dead*body.

    Casting forth numbers from the field that calls itself ‘medical science’ is not realistic or relevant to the crux of the vaccine debate. Every pro vaccine propaganda leaflet, the kind a mother picks up in a health centre, is replete with simplistic graphs of disease rates falling as vaccine rates increase. Misinformation, assumption and lies, is my answer to that. But don’t take my word for it. Do the reading yourself. Ask, as I did, as a young parent a couple of decades ago, for further information about the benefits of vaccination. You will be firstly met with an attitude of disbelief, for having questioned the methods of obviously superior minds. Secondly there will be much fumbling, as they realize they do not have anything at hand, to give you, to back up their theory (because that’s what vaccination is based on; speculative theory). Thirdly, expect that if you continue to question the theory, they may possibly tell you that your child will die if you refuse to accept it.
    If they do manage to come up with reading material, examine it closely, then in the interests of humanity, read the arguments from the other side too.
    Then meet me back here for the debate.

    PS Worth noting that a considerable number of health professionals, GP’s included, the very ones who dole out needles to newborns, do not in fact vaccinate their own children.

  • Anto

    Immediately regretted the “to be fair”; slipped aphorism really!

    Most commentators are neglecting to mention the role of the multi-billion dollar “Alternative Medicine” industry – yes those smiling aran jumper wearing hippies running health food shops and homeopathy clinics and making a collective fortune from promoting quackery, and undermining science.
    They prey on the fears of ordinary people who may not have the skill, experience or time to effectively analyse a scientific finding.

    They shouldn’t get away scot-free and should suffer the same level of criticism as the media, if not more.