Andrew Wakefield is back in the news. Sadly this is because the predicted outbreaks of measles are again occurring in the U.K.. As Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick points out, Andrew Wakefield is not the only one who helped spread unfounded fear of the MMR, but he is the man most responsible for promoting the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Without Mr. Wakefield, the scare would not have happened.
Now, 15 years after Mr. Wakefield’s heyday, an outbreak of measles has hit south Wales. And the press are reminding us all that Mr. Wakefield’s research reports were wrong and that he acted unethically in the process of creating those reports. And Mr. Wakefield is responding with the blame shifting and goalpost moving that has become his standard. To their shame, a UK newspaper hosted Mr. Wakefield’s response. And he has gone direct to YouTube with a video where he lays out his explanation. And calls for a debate. Yes, a debate. Televised. Because that’s how science is decided, right? TV debates? If there weren’t children suffering and in danger, this would be a bad joke.
Dr. Fitzpatrick also points out that he has offered to debate Mr. Wakefield in the past and Mr. Wakefield refused. Dr. Fitzpatrick has offered to take Mr. Wakefield up on his debate request. So far I don’t see any signs from Mr. Wakefield that he’s going to take Dr. Fitzpatrick up on his offer. Mike Fitzpatrick has been countering Andrew Wakefield’s misinformation since the early days of the MMR scare.
Let’s step back a moment and ask how did we get to this situation where low vaccine uptake has resulted in a major outbreak? Well, 15 years ago Mr. Wakefield’s team at the Royal Free Hospital released a paper which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Mr. Wakefield did much more than suggest a link. At the press conference for the paper’s release (note that very few papers have press conferences) Mr. Wakefield called for the suspension of the MMR vaccine in favor of single measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. He didn’t really explain why the single vaccine would be more safe in his mind, making it very difficult for parents to accept how the single vaccines were, in his faulty opinion, safe.
Mr. Wakefield’s current logic has it that it is the government’s fault for not allowing the importation of single vaccines. Ignore the unfounded fear that Mr. Wakefield created about measles vaccines, he asks. Blame the government. Sure the government can take some blame (anyone recall when the prime minister refused to answer whether his family used the MMR?). As does the press. But without Andrew Wakefield and his faulty assertions, there would have been no scare.
Mr. Wakefield repeats his claim that his opinions on the MMR were based on a 200 page report on measles vaccines. He didn’t even mention his 200 page report at the time of the Lancet paper and press release. Ignore the research he did (we should have. It was faulty and unethically performed). Instead, let’s look to his report. A report which only now he will release to the public, according to his YouTube video. Yes, no one has seen his report. We were all supposed to take his opinion for the past decade and a half. He didn’t even tell us about his report. We were just supposed to have such confidence in him that we were supposed to have assumed he had some reason.
Now he will finally release his report, he says. That is, if his attorneys give him permission. Yes, he will spend the money to have attorneys read his 200 pages and only then, possibly, make some edits and then let us see how he came to this faulty conclusion.
Keep in mind, in 1998 Andrew Wakefield’s statements were made in the context of an active researcher who claimed he had evidence to support a reason to instill fear about the MMR vaccine (and, let’s face it, fear of the single vaccine. One of the lancet 12 got the single vaccine.) What did he say at the time?
In a video released with the press conference, he is shown stating:
I think if you asked members of the team that have investigated this they would give you different answers. And I have to say that there is sufficient anxiety in my own mind of the safety, the long term safety of the polyvalent, that is the MMR vaccination in combination, that I think that it should be suspended in favour of the single vaccines, that is continued use of the individual measles, mumps and rubella components.
No mention of his report. He gave this in the context of a man who led the team that had just released the 1998 Lancet study.
He further asks us to accept a new revised history, and this is the statement that forced me to write again about this man. In his video he claims, “all I could do as a parent is state what would I do for my child.” He didn’t present his views as “what would I do as a parent”. He presented his mistaken views as a researcher who was actively exploring the question. Don’t take my word for it. Take his. From his testimony before the GMC:
At that stage, having done a good deal of research, I wanted to make it clear to my colleagues, including Professor Zuckerman, that since a press briefing had been recommended and was being organised, that if I were asked, if the question were put to me, then I would have to act in due conscience based upon my researches and I would not be able to continue to recommend the combined measles/mumps/rubella vaccine.
emphasis added. Not his position as a parent. As a researcher.
Many of the children in Wales who are at risk for measles infection are older than those who typically get the MMR. Their parents decided years ago, during the height of the scare, to forgo the MMR vaccine. Even if Mr. Wakefield’s ideas were correct (and multiple studies have shown they are not), these children are not at risk of developing autism by his mechanism. And yet he doesn’t call for parents to vaccinate their children. Instead, he spends his time telling us all about how it isn’t his fault that children are getting infected.
It’s not about the children or their safety. It’s about him.
The idea that Mr. Wakefield’s claims could cause a scare and lead to outbreaks of measles is not new. His own research colleagues warned him of the possibility before their press conference. They asked that they show a public face that was “agnostic” towards the safety of the MMR. Mr. Wakefield refused. And now he asks us to ignore that it was his own actions that have put children at risk.
Mr. Wakefield’s colleague and co-author on the Lancet paper, Dr. Simon Murch, made this statement long ago:
This link is unproven and measles is a killing infection. If this precipitates a scare and immunisation rates go down, as sure as night follows day, measles will return and children will die
Night has followed day. Measles has returned. And we now wait and pray that none die.
By Matt Carey