The 1998 study in which Dr. Andrew Wakefield first claimed that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism was ‘manufactured at a London medical school’ and its data based not on science, but on ‘deliberate fraud.’
In the first of a series of articles in BMJ (British Medical Journal), journalist Brian Deer, who has long reported on Wakefield, describes how the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed. Below are the main points in Deer’s article; I quote from his text in full, due to the amount of detail. Emphases in italics are mine.
The Lancet paper [which was retracted last year] was a case series of 12 child patients; it reported a proposed “new syndrome” of enterocolitis and regressive autism and associated this with MMR as an “apparent precipitating event.” But in fact:
Three of nine children reported with regressive autism did not have autism diagnosed at all. Only one child clearly had regressive autism
Despite the paper claiming that all 12 children were “previously normal,” five had documented pre-existing developmental concerns
Some children were reported to have experienced first behavioural symptoms within days of MMR, but the records documented these as starting some months after vaccination
In nine cases, unremarkable colonic histopathology results—noting no or minimal fluctuations in inflammatory cell populations—were changed after a medical school “research review” to “non-specific colitis”
The parents of eight children were reported as blaming MMR, but 11 families made this allegation at the hospital. The exclusion of three allegations—all giving times to onset of problems in months—helped to create the appearance of a 14 day temporal link
Patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation
In an editorial accompanying Deer’s article, Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of BMJ writes:
I sincerely hope so. But I am very sure that, even with all the facts, data, and evidence laid before them, those who believe that vaccines or something in vaccines caused or somehow ‘contributed’ to their child becoming autistic will stand by their claims, and by Wakefield. Some of these persons are my friends. They are parents, as am I, of autistic children. In some cases, our children were diagnosed at around the same time and we cried together, worried together, searched and searched for treatments and therapies together, learned together, hoped together.
It is a hard thing to know, that no one knows why one’s child is autistic.
CNN quotes Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a pediatric neurologist at Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, who states that the report “represents Wakefield as a person where the ends justified the means.” However, he also notes that:
the latest news may have little effect on those families who still blame vaccines for their children’s conditions.
“Unfortunately, his core group of supporters is not going to let the facts dissuade their beliefs that MMR causes autism……..They need to be open-minded and examine the information as everybody else.”
Godlee in her BMJ editorial describes the damage wrought by Wakefield’s 1998 article:
[T]he damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession. Although vaccination rates in the United Kingdom have recovered slightly from their 80% low in 2003-4, they are still below the 95% level recommended by the World Health Organization to ensure herd immunity. In 2008, for the first time in 14 years, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales. Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents’ trust in the vaccine is ongoing.
Wakefield’s article caused a worldwide public health scare about vaccines whose effects will be with us for years and has led untold numbers of parents down a trail of false hopes, as parents have sought out all sorts of biomedical treatments to ‘recover’ their child from autism.
I hope that we can all read the articles in BMJ and understand that what is presented in them is facts, data, and evidence, clear and simple.
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