The sad history of vaccines and autism

Whenever I give talks about my book, there’s one myth I leave to the end.  It’s also the myth we left until the end of the book.  It’s the one that links vaccines to autism.  I leave it until the end, because it’s one of those topics that you almost can’t talk about rationally anymore.  It’s no longer a matter of science for some people; it’s become a matter of faith.  It doesn’t matter how many studies are done disproving the link.  To people who believe, that’s just more evidence of the cover-up.

One of the saddest facts of this tragedy (and it is one) is that not only was the initial “study” horrifically flawed, but the main “scientist” behind it was even more so.  Well, he just lost his license to practice medicine.  I was going to write about it, but Mary Carmichael already did, and she did a much better job than I would have:

If the first principle of medicine is “do no harm,” Wakefield should have lost his license a long time ago. To say that his autism study was discredited isn’t strong enough. Wakefield apparently lied about the young patients he reported on in his paper; his descriptions of their conditions didn’t match up with records kept on file at his hospital. He also lied by omission, neglecting to reveal a huge conflict of interest: he had been paid about a million dollars to advise lawyers of parents who were worried their children had been injured by the vaccine. According to the Guardian, Wakefield “tried out Transfer Factor on one of the children in his research programme but failed to tell the child’s GP. He took blood from children at a birthday party, paying them £5 a time.”

Ten of Wakefield’s coauthors eventually renounced his study, and The Lancet, the journal that had published it, formally retracted it in February. Unsurprisingly, follow-up studies in 2002 and 2005 found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine. By then, though, it didn’t matter: Wakefield’s paper had gotten too much traction among the general public. Vaccination rates in Britain plummeted, and kids started to get sick. In 2006 a 13-year-old boy died of measles, the first victim in Britain since 1992.

Wakefield, meanwhile, has fared pretty well. From 2004 until earlier this year, he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as executive director of Thoughtful House, a Texas autism “recovery” center. Many people in the antivaccine community regard him as a martyr, a whistle-blower who lost his job for daring to speak out against a shadowy conspiracy of governments and drugmakers. Jenny McCarthy, the most visible antivaccine activist, wrote the foreword to his new book. In February, she and boyfriend Jim Carrey released a statement saying that “Dr. Wakefield is being vilified through a well-orchestrated smear campaign.” All of which is to say, if today’s censure has any effect, it’ll be to boost his stature among his admirers as a man more sinned against than sinning.

It’s hard for me to be dispassionate about people who abuse the trust people give physicians; I get even more riled up when someone violates the rules of ethical science.  So I’m going to stop before I write something I regret.  But losing his license?  It’s not nearly enough.

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