Unconscionable and Obscene

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on January 6, 2011

For those of you who don’t know the name “Andrew Wakefield,” he is the physician who started up and encouraged the belief that vaccines can lead to autism. No one should have believed his brand of nonsense to begin with, but it is worth noting that his “research” on the subject has now been completely debunked:

When I broke the news to the father of child 11, at first he did not believe me. “Wakefield told us my son was the 13th child they saw,” he said, gazing for the first time at the now infamous research paper which linked a purported new syndrome with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.1 “There’s only 12 in this.”

That paper was published in the Lancet on 28 February 1998. It was retracted on 2 February 2010.2 Authored by Andrew Wakefield, John Walker-Smith, and 11 others from the Royal Free medical school, London, it reported on 12 developmentally challenged children,3 and triggered a decade long public health scare.

“Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated by the parents with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children,” began the paper’s “findings.” Adopting these claims as fact,4 its “results” section added: “In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioural symptoms was 6.3 days (range 1-14).”

Mr 11, an American engineer, looked again at the paper: a five page case series of 11 boys and one girl, aged between 3 and 9 years. Nine children, it said, had diagnoses of “regressive” autism, and all but one were reported with “non-specific colitis.” The “new syndrome” brought these together, linking brain and bowel diseases. His son was the penultimate case.

Running his finger across the paper’s tables, over coffee in London, Mr 11 seemed reassured by his anonymised son’s age and other details. But then he pointed at table 2—headed “neuropsychiatric diagnosis”—and for a second time objected.

“That’s not true.”

Child 11 was among the eight whose parents apparently blamed MMR. The interval between his vaccination and the first “behavioural symptom” was reported as 1 week. This symptom was said to have appeared at age 15 months. But his father, whom I had tracked down, said this was wrong.

“From the information you provided me on our son, who I was shocked to hear had been included in their published study,” he wrote to me, after we met again in California, “the data clearly appeared to be distorted.”

He backed his concerns with medical records, including a Royal Free discharge summary.5 Although the family lived 5000 miles from the hospital, in February 1997 the boy (then aged 5) had been flown to London and admitted for Wakefield’s project, the undisclosed goal of which was to help sue the vaccine’s manufacturers.6

Jonathan Adler chimes in as well with a cutting remark: “Perhaps now, finally, the vaccine-autism charade is over. I’ll await the reports on Oprah and MSNBC’s ‘Countdown.’” I am not sure that Professor Adler ought to hold his breath. But it is Megan McArdle, who has the best summary of the matter:

I cannot fathom what might drive someone to do something like this. We’re primed to look for pecuniary motives in corporate malfeasance, but this was an academic, a doctor, working in conjunction with an attorney. If the allegations are true, they’ve managed to kill more people than Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy put together.

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