Respectful Insolence

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I just don’t understand it.

I just don’t understand how anyone can take the charlatan Andrew Wakefield seriously anymore.

If anyone had any doubt that there is a cult of personality around this discredited vaccine fear-monger, whose shoddy science and undisclosed conflicts of interest managed to ignite a false hysteria over the MMR vaccine, wonder no more. Observe the support that he still commands from parents as he is finally called to account for his misdeeds:

Waving placards and chanting support for Dr Andrew Wakefield, parents from across the country gathered outside the General Medical Council to support the controversial doctor – each with a story to tell about how their child or grandchild had changed after the MMR jab.

Dr Wakefield and two other doctors stand today before the GMC’s Fitness to Practise Panel, accused of serious professional misconduct. The GMC will hear allegations that Dr Wakefield, who now works in the US, and Professors John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch failed in their duty to act in the best interests of children.

The trio, who face being struck off, published a paper in The Lancet in February 1998 suggesting there could be a link between the triple jab – against measles, mumps and rubella – and bowel disease and autism. It led to falling numbers of parents immunising their children and a row over whether the then prime minister, Tony Blair, had vaccinated his son, Leo.

The accusations relate to investigations for the study on 12 youngsters with bowel disorders carried out between 1996 and 1998. The GMC charge sheet covers several allegations, including that Dr Wakefield took blood samples from children at a birthday party after offering them money.

All three are accused of performing colonoscopies and lumbar punctures on children without proper approval and contrary to the children’s clinical interests. At the time, all three doctors were employed at the Royal Free Hospital’s medical school in London.

That’s right; Wakefield performed unnecessary and invasive procedures on autistic children as well. Moreover, the British press is complicit in lionizing Wakefied, who should have his license to practice stripped for what he did. Indeed, over the weekend, The Independent and The Daily Express each published utterly credulous articles that parroted the same myths about the MMR causing autism as though they had equal credibility with the scientists citing studies that fail to find a link between vaccines and autism.

Arthur Allen and I have both written about why the myth that vaccines cause autism will probably never die, no matter how many wooden stakes of scientific studies are plunged into its dark heart. No matter what the result of this hearing, which could take several months, you can be sure that it will continue. If Wakefield is stripped of his license to practice and forced to face sanctions, he will be portrayed as a martyr to the cause, a veritable mini-Galileo, and the same activist groups will continue to claim that MMR causes autism. If, on the other hand, no sanctions are imposed, he will be portrayed as having been vindicated, and the same activist groups will continue to claim that MMR causes autism.

And so it goes.

Comments

  1. #1 Ginger Yellow
    July 16, 2007

    It’s not just those newspapers either. The Observer, part of the same media group as the normally good on science Guardian, published a ridiculous story on autism and MMR the week before that grotesquely misrepresented an unpublished research paper to make it seem as though there were a link even though the research had nothing to do with MMR. Ben Goldacre ripped it to shreds. Basically there are no even halfway readable Sunday papers any more. They’ve become vehicles for free DVDs (remarkably, the deeply reactionary Mail on Sunday gave away Prince’s new album this week) and endless supplements stuffed full of ads for holidays and property. They’re all increasingly dominated by the sort of lifestyle features and health scaremongering that used to be the preserve of the Mail.

  2. #2 Bob O'H
    July 16, 2007

    Do you follow Ben Goldacre’s del.icio.us feed? You can get it from his (new improved and all-shiny) Bad Science pages. I mention this partly because he’s been linking to the coveage, but also because he pointed out another case before the GMC this month: Dr Joyce Pratt. You’ll have to search for it in the events section.

    Bob

  3. #3 sophia8
    July 16, 2007

    Actually, the BBC’s Breakfast News this morning had their resident doctor give a short, sharp takedown of Wakefield’s “study”. She pointed out that his study had only 12 children, that no other studies since had shown a convincing connection between NMR and autism, that measles infections were now on the rise for the first time in years and that measles was a serious disease that could disable or even kill. All that at a time when parents would be watching. Not bad.

  4. #4 Eamon Knight
    July 16, 2007

    Another good article from the BBC website. Avoids the false “balance” of he-said/she-said, and makes clear: the medical community thinks he’s full of shit, and acted improperly.

  5. #5 Bartholomew Cubbins
    July 16, 2007

    I get older I realize the power of the words my graduate school mentors said repeatedly: “Let the data speak for itself.” These real scientists were not showmen and they sure as hell weren’t doing it for the money. Wakers ought to take a good hard look at himself and think about that.

  6. #6 Dangerous Bacon
    July 16, 2007

    Is poor Andy still living in that tiny apartment in Austin, Texas?

    http://www.autismconnect.org/news.asp?section=00010001&itemtype=news&id=5825

    At least now he has that chance for vindication that he’s been pushing for.

    By the way, what _is_ he doing in Texas?

  7. #7 Jon
    July 16, 2007

    not just the Observer, either – the BMJ (!) made a basic mistake re. autism figures, and the Guardian has joined in too. The Guardian’s new Q&A on MMR has resurrected the good old ‘MMR contains mercury’ canard.

    The UK media is especially depressing at the moment :(

  8. #8 Andrew Dodds
    July 17, 2007

    How about this for a solution..

    When it comes to vaccination, if parents decide to refuse vaccinations, they legally have to cite a source for why (A website, newspaper, etc). Then if their child does, for instance, end up deaf from mumps, there will be a clear, liable responsability. Of course, people may choose to name a source that was sue-able..

    This would not stop newspapers publishing accurate stories, of course.

    But if a newspaper publishes known lies about a politician, it is liable for damages just for reputation loss. If it publishes information that a companies’ products are harmful when they are not, it is liable. If they push a share on the finance pages which the finance editors happen to own a lot of.. they are liable. Why not for publishing ‘health’ information that is *known* to be false?

  9. #9 Simon
    July 17, 2007

    Another article on the trial.

    Apparently he “paid children attending his son’s birthday party to donate their blood for his research”. Also, I find him performing “lumbar punctures, barium meals and colonoscopies” that the children did not need more than a little unsettling.

  10. #10 Paul Power
    July 17, 2007

    To address the implied question of why anyone would take him seriously:

    If you child suffers from a debilitating medical condtion for which there is no treatment, and if it became noticeable around the time you vaccinated him, and if someone apparently with medical authority links the two, then your desperation will give that authority credence. To be fair to these parent-fans, you’d need to know a lot of biology/biochemistry to make your own mind up on the plausibility of Wakefield’s theory, and it took a lot of time for the epidemiological evidence against it to be gathered.

  11. #11 Ruth
    July 17, 2007

    JK Rowling said her character Gilderoy Lockhart was based on a real person-could it be Dr. Wakefield?

  12. #12 Dunc
    July 17, 2007

    Not only did he pay children at his sons birthday party to donate blood for his “research”, but the BBC News broadcast a spendid bit of footage of him talking about this at some US anti-vax conference, where he joked about how it was all “completely consensual”, to gales of ironic laughter from the audience. He knew it wasn’t kosher, they knew it wasn’t kosher, and they all shared a good bellylaugh about it – on the main evening news.

    Hopefully that should go some way towards discrediting him.

  13. #13 Dunc
    July 17, 2007

    Turns out the report in question is available on the BBC News site… Go to http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6289166.stm, and click on the right-hand sidebar link “Supporters welcome Dr Wakefield outside the GMC” to watch the odious twat in action.

  14. #14 anonimouse
    July 17, 2007

    To be fair to these parent-fans, you’d need to know a lot of biology/biochemistry to make your own mind up on the plausibility of Wakefield’s theory, and it took a lot of time for the epidemiological evidence against it to be gathered.

    The door has been closed on this theory for years now – at least since the 2004 IOM report basically smacked it down for good. But that’s ok for the sham “organizations” and quacks who still tout the theory and gain notoriety and $$$ in the process, as well as for the litigants who see their kids as lottery tickets.

  15. #15 Ginny
    July 17, 2007

    It’s not just those 30 protesters who support Wakefield, either. An online petition by Nigel Thomas, whose two brothers have autism, asks the government to “stop investigating the doctors and start investigating the patients”. It’s gotten about 7,600 (!) signatures so far.

  16. #16 TheProbe
    July 17, 2007

    Dangerous Bacon asks “By the way, what _is_ he doing in Texas?”

    He is Malpractising at Thoughtful House without the benefit of a license to practice medicine in Texas.

    Did you expect anything less? ;)

  17. #17 HCN
    July 18, 2007

    Ginny, how many of those signatures are anonymous or sock puppets?

    Also, why won’t Nigel Thomas answer my simple question? I’ve asked it several times here:
    http://www.kevinleitch.co.uk/wp/?p=573#comment-40088
    and elsewhere.

    Perhaps you know the answer: The MMR in question is the Merck MMR that was approved for use in the USA in 1971. This is the exact same vaccine that was introduced in the UK in 1988 (the biggest difference being the mumps strain*** see note below). So why it is that in this vaccine’s thirty-plus years of use, was it only since it started to be used in the UK that it became a problem?

    ***Mumps strains… there are a few mumps strains in various vaccines. One that was commonly used was the Urabe strain. It unfortunately causes meningitis. But the one mumps strain that does not cause problems is the Jeryl Lynn strain, which is what is in the Merck MMR vaccine. You can read all about its development in the biography of Maurice Hilleman by Paul Offit titled _Vaccinated_ (note Jeryl Lynn is the name of his daughter!):
    http://www.amazon.com/Vaccinated-Defeat-Worlds-Deadliest-Diseases/dp/0061227951/

    Now the ironic thing is that folks in the UK who wanted single vaccines, decided to illegally import a mumps vax with the more dangerous Urabe strain! See:
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4158/is_20020806/ai_n12644054

  18. #18 Ginger Yellow
    July 18, 2007

    Ben has an article in today’s Guardian about the Observer piece.

  19. #19 Dr Aust
    July 18, 2007

    There is a good summary of “the story so far” from Brian Deer at:

    http://briandeer.com/mmr/lancet-summary.htm

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