Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Dr. Andrew Wakefield's Fraudulent Claims about Autism

This month the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a three part series by Brian Deer, detailing the fraud by which Dr. Andrew Wakefield led parents to see the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine as a potential cause of autism.

In 1998, Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a paper in Lancet - "Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children." The article presented 12 cases from the Royal Free Hospital in London, alleging that a severe form of autism and gastrointestinal disorders closely followed administration of the MMR vaccine.

Wakefield's "findings" catalysed a massive anti-vaccine movement in the U.K., U.S. and elsewhere, and suits against the vaccine manufacturers for injury. Unfortunately, as Deer's seven years of research documented, Wakefield's conclusions were not simply wrong, they were based on fraud and driven by rampant financial conflict of interest.

Prior to the "study" reported in Lancet, Wakefield had gone onto the payroll of a lawyer who was preparing to sue vaccine manufacturers for causing autism. Families of developmentally disabled children who believed their children had been injured by MMR were solicited to bring the children to the Royal Free Hospital. Intrusive tests that were not clinically indicated were performed on the children. And, as a massive investigation by the General Medical Council (GMC), conducted nine years after publication of the original article demonstrated, the case reports were distorted and outright falsified to support the "conclusion."

Deer details the business ventures that Wakefield and the Royal Free Hospital concocted, to profit from diagnostic tests Wakefield had patented that purported to allow diagnosis of MMR-induced injury. He also describes, in painful detail, presenting his findings in 2004 to Lancet, only to be met with what appears to have been a coverup.

Deer describes being fought against, blocked from gaining access to sources, and sued, during his long journalistic crusade. The GMC investigation ultimately confirmed all of his conclusions. Wakefield and one of his co-authors were stripped of their medical licenses.

Wakefield's fraud has caused multiple injuries, including: (1) distressed parents of children with autism have been duped into believing the cause of their childrens' disorder is known; (2) uptake of MMR has declined, with episodic outbreaks of all three conditions as a result; and (3) public skepticism in research integrity has been intensified.

Sadly, as the U.S. is seeing with regard to the lies about a government plan to create "death panels," it's vastly more difficult to impugn false claims than to make them in the first place. Initial comments on Deer's BMJ articles include many defenses of Wakefield as the victim of a campaign to hide the truth about vaccines, not as the disgraced perpetrator of fraud that he is.

(For Brian Deer's remarkable articles see here, here and here. And for an accompanying BMJ editorial see here.)

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