Calls for a parliamentary investigation and charges that someone at the top was, if not deceitful, assuredly incompetent: No, this isn’t another post about the testimony News Corporation’s James Murdoch gave to the parliamentary culture, media and sport select committee on Thursday but about a topic I’ve been following for 14 years — the claims by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, that the MMR vaccine was connected to the onset of autism in children. The 1998 study in which Wakefield and others described such a connection has not only been retracted by the medical journal that published it, The Lancet, but its findings have been discredited as “deliberate fraud.”
Now, Dr. Fiona Godlee, the editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), is calling for a parliamentary inquiry into MMR fraud. At least six of Wakefield’s articles besides the 1998 Lancet one warrant “independent investigation,” she says.
In the same issue of BMJ, an essay by journalist Brian Deer (who has long reported on Wakefield’s fraudulent claims) examines the unpublished data that Wakefield used in a 2000 paper in the American Journal of Gastroenterology in which he described a “new syndrome” that he called ”autistic enterocolitis; this paper has also been retracted. After thirteen years and numerous studies, Wakefield’s results have yet to be replicated and Deer, after an examination of pathology reports about intestinal biopsies from 11 out of the 12 children, explains why: There was no enterocolitis in the intestinal specimens. Indeed, the specimens from the children were “overwhelmingly normal.” In addition, the reports left out some key information: Two of the children had a history of severe constipation and endoscopy could not reach their small intestine for samples because of “gross faecal loading.”
For these reasons, Godlee has written a letter to MP Andrew Miller and called for Parliament to investigate University College of London where Wakefield carried out his research, unless the university carries out its own:
If UCL does not immediately initiate an externally-led review of its role in the vaccine scare, we believe that parliament should do it. After the effort and time it has taken to crack the secrets of the MMR scare, and the enormous harm it has caused to public health, it would compound the scandal not to heed the warnings from this catastrophic example of wrongdoing.
Proponents of the notion the vaccines or something in vaccines might be linked to autism published articles criticizing Deer in the week before his BMJ report. Supporters of such a theory have indeed been loathe to give up their claims, despite the continued accruing of evidence and the fact that Wakefield’s claims about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism have had a lasting, and unfortunate, effect on public health. His findings were widely reported in the mainstream media and set off a massive global public health scare. Vaccination rates in the UK fell to an 80% low in 2003-4; while these have recovered, they have yet to return to the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. Measles was declared endemic in England and Wales in 2008, for the first time in 14 years; the US is currently seeing the highest rates of measles in 15 years as parents still hesitate to have their children vaccinated. Wakefield himself was struck off the UK medical register over charges of misconduct, including four counts of dishonesty, in May of last year and now practices privately in Texas.
Should Parliament decide to hold an inquiry about Wakefield’s research and MMR fraud, there will be much to discuss and deliberate on — and some blame and censure to deliver to some parties — indeed.
Photo by Andres Rueda