This post is part of a series of guest posts on GPS by the undergraduate and graduate students in my Science vs. Pseudoscience course. As part of their work for the course, each student had to demonstrate mastery of the skill of “Educating the Public about Pseudoscience.” To that end, each student has to prepare two 1,000ish word posts on a particular pseudoscience topic, as well as run a booth on-campus to help reach people physically about the topic.
The Sordid History of the Anti-Vaccine Movement’s King Science-Denier by Keia Atkinson
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by impairments in social interaction as well as verbal and non-verbal communication, frequently accompanied by repetitive self-soothing behavior. Individuals with ASD experience difficulty connecting to others in social situations, have difficulty experiencing empathy, and often have issues with impulsive behavior and self-regulation, especially when confronted with novel stimuli. Prior to recent history, the disorder was seen as relatively rare, with only the most extreme cases of nonverbal autism attended to by the medical community. Over the course of the last 25 years, and as the diagnostic criteria have expanded, a far greater number of individuals are being diagnosed with the ASD. This has not only resulted in increased interest in treating the disorder through medical and psychological methods, but also in discovering the epidemiology and etiology of what was once considered a rare diagnosis.
Since that time, there have been a number of hypotheses generated to explain the cause of the disorder and the increase in diagnostic prevalence. While there have been papers demonstrating a strong genetic component, as well as theories highlighting a number of other possible factors that could contribute to developing the disorder (environmental contaminants such as heavy metals or pesticides) the lack of certainty regarding both the cause of ASD and any associated treatment methods has resulted in a population of parents and loved ones desperate for information that doesn’t exist. These family members and caretakers are faced with what they see as an impossible choice – accept what the medical establishment and scientific community have to offer, which at the moment could be not much, or “give up” on ones child by accepting the face that they have ASD and adapting to the changed situation. Unfortunately, it is the most desperate amongst us that are most vulnerable to those who would take advantage of their plight for personal financial gain.
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield’s paper describing a link between the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was published in the Lancet. Wakefield, in addition to twelve co-authors, claimed that in a study of 12 children they observed a combination of gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression that occurred within two weeks of receiving an MMR vaccine. It is important to note that there was no real causal explanation provided, even a hypothetical one, in the original work (there is some hand waving about “too many viruses at once” in there, but this is never really explained). This, for Wakefield, was enough to immediately speculate to the media in a press conference about the safety of the widely used vaccine preventing what were, prior to mass vaccination, ailments that regularly maimed and killed children. Since that time, controversy has reigned within popular culture regarding the potential of vaccines to cause autism, among other disorders and ailments.
This study, and Wakefield’s media personality, has survived within the Zeitgeist in the intervening years in spite of the fact that the Lancet, the scientific journal that originally published his “study,” completely retracted his work in 2010, stating that his conclusions were “fatally flawed.” An investigation by journalist Brian Deer determined that data was found to have been explicitly manipulated. In 2004, when media scrutiny first began to build, ten of his co-authors retracted their names from the interpretation in the work, and distanced themselves from any conclusions or they had initially approved. All of this scrutiny and these disavowals came in response to a news story published in the Sunday Times, in which parents of the original 12 children in the study were found to have been recruited by a lawyer preparing a massive lawsuit against manufacturers of the MMR vaccine, and that this same lawyer had given a sum of money to the Royal Free Hospital and over £400,000 to Andrew Wakefield himself. To think of this as anything other than a quid pro quo deal would be naïve, at best. Without speculating on any prior arrangements, it is evident that Wakefield’s clear conflict of interest prevented him from being able to conduct the study in an unbiased and objective manner.
Within months, additional evidence was levied against Wakefield, namely that he had applied for a patent prior to publishing in the Lancet, a patent that was for a single-jab measles vaccine that existed to prevent autism supposedly caused by MMR (referred to in the patent as regressive behavioral disorder, or RBD). Not only was Wakefield being paid to conduct the research by a lawyer preparing a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers, but his study participants were recruited by this same attorney, and he had applied for a patent for the very vaccine that would be needed were his research to be true. Dr. Wakefield was severely compromised, something that the General Medical Council (the British medical regulatory board) took note of, engaging from July 2007 to May 2010 in a “fitness to practice” trial. In addition to the conflict of interest charges that were brought against him regarding his relationship with the lawyer preparing a lawsuit, but facts regarding the treatment of his original subjects came to light that cast further doubt on Wakefield’s ability to practice medicine. These children were subjected to a number of painful invasive tests without any medical cause, such as spinal taps, colonoscopies, and colon biopsies without first obtaining the approval of the ethics board. The board ruled against Wakefield on all charges (and several unlisted ones that seem relatively minor in comparison to the whole vaccine-panic issue) and removed him from the UK medical register, rendering him unable to practice medicine in the UK.
Despite this fact, the damage has been done. Since this very ethically challenged individual conducted this ethically challenged study, vaccine rates within the UK and US have dropped significantly. In 1996, 92% of all individuals at 24-months in the UK were vaccinated for MMR. By 2002 it was 84%, with some parts of London dropping all the way to 61% in late 2003. Thankfully, vaccination rates have rebounded since Wakefield’s fall, but measles in now endemic in the UK, meaning it survives within the population. Thousands of people have gotten sick, and dozens have died in the outbreaks that are seen now and again. This is directly due to Andrew Wakefield and his paper in the Lancet, and their deaths can be attributed to his negligence and avarice.