And still they defend him

The Times: MMR doctor Andrew Wakefield ‘abused his position of trust’

The doctor who first claimed that the MMR vaccine could cause autism has been found guilty of a series of misconduct charges, that include putting children through painful and unnecessary tests, a disciplinary hearing has ruled today.

Dr Andrew Wakefield showed “a callous disregard” for the suffering of children and “abused his position of trust” as a doctor in carrying out a study which sparked the biggest vaccine scare in a generation and has been blamed for the resurgence of measles in Britain, the General Medical Council (GMC) found.

He was also found to have brought the medical profession “into disrepute” after he took blood samples from youngsters at his son’s birthday party in return for payments of £5 and failed to disclose vital conflicts of interest around his work – which has since been discredited.

Along with two former colleagues who were also involved in the study on 12 children, originally published in the Lancet medical journal in 1998, Dr Wakefield now faces being suspended or struck off the medical register if this verdict is confirmed by GMC later this year.

The findings from the 1998 Wakefield et al study on 12 children have failed to be replicated in subsequent studies involving millions of children. He failed to disclose conflicts of interest to the editors of The Lancet before his original paper was published in 1998 (he had received £55,000 before the study even began from lawyers representing parents wanting proof that the MMR had caused autism in their children, and had patented an alternative ‘single shot’ measles vaccine for his own personal gain). In the decade since the publication he received 8x his medical salary from fees as an “expert” provided through the UK legal aid system meant to assist people in poverty. The flagrant procedural flaws in the study (the children were not a random sample of cases from one hospital, the families had been specially recruited from already-existing anti-MMR activist groups, and their medical histories were manipulated and misrepresented) right from the off make its approval for publication by The Lancet‘s peer review system look none too clever either, although of course peer review is never proof against blatant fraud (that’s what subsequent replication-attempt studies tend to reveal).

The original Wakefield study is as debunked and discredited as it is possible for a piece of unethical cherry-picking “research” to be. Yet the article goes on to describe how supporters of Dr Wakefield attended the GMC hearings to heckle the chairman read out the panel’s verdicts and cheer as Wakefield addressed reporters afterwards. And in the comments to the Times article quoted above, he has people defending him on the basis that children can form contracts to sell their own blood if they want to! (Better yet, people with such a ridiculous misunderstanding of simple contract law want us to think that they understand the science better than everybody who has tried to replicate the Wakefield et al findings since 1998 without success).

This is the man whose pushing of the idea that autistic disorders have a discrete physical cause – the MMR jab – has led these parents to reject early-intervention cognitive behavioural therapies that are proven to improve communication and social skills for autistic children and instead turn to painful and useless physical treatments. When one touted cure doesn’t work they move on to ever more extreme treatments. The physical treatments that snake-oil sellers are persuading them to attempt are invasive, toxic, painful, dangerous and do not work. These people are torturing their children in the name of curing them, and often placing them on restrictive (and expensive! also inconvenient and socially even-more-isolating) diets that threaten their normal bodily development at the same time..

Also, while they accuse the medical establishment and Big Pharma and the government (and …) of failing to adequately test the MMR vaccine for harmful consequences before adding it to the standard vaccination regimen, they uncritically embrace treatments whose safety, let alone efficacy, has never been tested (having never even been submitted for proper medical evaluation).

“They really should be seeing treatment of patients with unproven therapies as dangerous experimentation,” said pediatrician Dr. Steven Goodman, a clinical trial expert at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “The problem with uncontrolled experiments … is that it is experimentation from which we can learn nothing.”

Many parents who try alternative therapies cite an analogy […] They say they feel as if their child has jumped off a pier. Science hasn’t proved that throwing a life preserver will save the child, but they have a duty to try, right?

Critics say that’s the wrong way to think about it.

“How do they know the life preserver is made of cork and not lead? That is the issue,” said Richard Mailman, a neuropharmacologist at Penn State University. “However desperate you are, you don’t want to throw your child a lead life preserver.” [Source]

Much of the language that anti-vax advocates use about their children with autism is also breathtakingly negative. They are describing their own children, in public and often with the child right there beside them, as “soulless” and emotionally/physically destructive creatures who have ruined their dreams of a normal family life, as children who have had their “real self” kidnapped by autism. It is hard not to feel immense pity for any child who hears this rejection of their personality as distorted, twisted and repulsive year after year, and what about how it affects other autistic-spectrum children with more empathetic parents, children who are shunned by the parents of their peers because they believe what these extremists say – that autistic children are at worst dangerous and at best so alien that their child could never enjoy or benefit from befriending them, so why bother?

In the bigger picture, now that people are fearful of vaccines due to the anti-vax scaremongering and are refusing to vaccinate their children, children all over the world are dying or left permanently disabled by diseases that a decade ago had been virtually suppressed by the herd immunity produced by general vaccination.

I understand how very much these parents want their children to not have the difficulties, especially the socialisation difficulties, that they face, and that they want to believe someone who tells them he has answers. I understand how very difficult it can be to parent a child with autism and the adjustments to expectations that have to be made, and how distressing this can be. I understand that they are heavily emotionally invested in finding someone to blame and finding a way to make their child’s life (and thus their own life) easier. But I can’t understand how they can be so willing to inflict pointless pain on their children in the name of doing so.

Disclosure: I have two children who have been diagnosed with communication/socialisation disorders on the Autistic Spectrum.

Categories: ethics & philosophy, medicine, parenting

Tags: ,

14 replies

  1. From troll-wrangling[Moderator note: this commentor
    is morphing their identity here.]
    Why can’t more forceful action be taken against the anti-vaxers like the Australian Vaccination Network?

    • @Adelheid, what action would you suggest? Odious and misleading as their speech may be, their right to freely express their opinions is still protected. Of course, the right of people who feel that they have been misled and defrauded by irresponsible and unsubstantiated anti-vax claims to sue the people responsible is also protected, and I’d be very happy to see a few lawsuits taken out.
      @Liz Ditz, thanks for the link!

  2. One of my blogging habits is to collate pro and con posts on a particular issue. One reason to do is that each blog has its own set of commenters and often the comments reveal aspects of the issue previously not considered elsewhere.
    Today’s issue is the UK’s General Medical Council’s ruling on Andrew Wakefield.
    I’ve included this post in the list.
    The list can be found at

  3. I nearly smashed my television the other day when I flicked it on to see two antivaxers getting the royal treatment from that pair of idiots on Channel 10’s morning show.
    They make me very, very angry.

  4. They are describing their own children, in public and often with the child right there beside them, as “soulless” and emotionally/physically destructive creatures who have ruined their dreams of a normal family life, as children who have had their “real self” kidnapped by autism.

    Oh my sainted aunt. The “changeling” myth lives on. Have they tried any of the traditional remedies for having a child “stolen by the faeries” to see whether those are effective against autism? I mean, these things are traditional, they have a dedicated history, so they must work, amirite?
    [Disclaimer: the above is extreme sarcasm, hyperbole, and ironic co-option of the pre-modern = perfect myth adopted by any number of pro-woo practitioners. In no way am I advocating any of these traditional remedies for changeling children, many of which would be counted as child abuse.]

  5. Elsewhere:
    Bad Astronomy
    ABC radio’s The World Today – transcript available shortly.

  6. Hi from a mom of 2 – I’ve been following Hoyden About Town and wanted to say hello. That is some corrupt medicine! My husband and I followed all the controversy when our kids were born and decided to go ahead with the vaccinations because the science seemed sketchy . . . didn’t realize it was THAT sketchy. And such a petty little reason for buying fake medical research. Is this guy’s study the only basis for all the anti-vaccine sentiment (chickenpox, etc)?

    • Hi Kristin,
      Wakefield’s study is not the only source of anti-vax sentiment. As with any medication, there is a minor but persistent risk of an adverse reaction to vaccines, and some of these have been severe anaphylaxis that has led to permanent disability and sometimes death. Compared to the death rates our great-grandparents expected amongst their offspring before vaccination the risk of these adverse reactions is extremely small.
      As childhood diseases generally had been eradicated by vaccination, people unused to seeing children die of various illnesses in most families around them panicked about these rare deaths without considering that if herd immunity drops we are going to see a lot of permament impairments from preventable disease. Even though our much-advanced hospitals mean that death is now far less likely from these illnesses (most childhood deaths were actually from a secondary opportunistic infection attacking a debilitated physique rather than from the disease itself), lingering consequences such as deafness, blindness, ataxia and more will still occur.
      There was also a lot of panic about mercury in vaccines (actually a mercuric compound called thimerosal used as a preservative) allegedly causing autism. There had been so much agitation that thimerosal was removed from vaccines in the early 90s and then nothing changed in the rate of new autism cases, thus discrediting a connection that many people had a big stake in. So Wakefield’s study came at exactly the right time to give the thimerosal anti-vaxxers something new to grab on to. (Even though MMR as a live vaccine never ever contained thimerosal anyway, thus there should be no logical connection, but that didn’t matter.)

  7. I am a delayed vaxer. For a time I was a fence sitter. My firstborn had an extreme reaction to his 2 mo vax and so I waited until he was older to commence. I have read some anti vax stuff but to be honest as a busy mother of three it’s hard to digest or really know WHAT to believe. It’s a bloody minefield trying to do right by your child. In the end I have waited until my children were bigger and stronger. My personal and totally unscientific belief is that I would prefer to vax a developed immune system. Obviously I have that luxury living in a first world country where my children have not been in care and would be unlikely to be exposed to many of these illnesses.
    Anyway I digress, what I wanted to comment on was the reference to diet. I wondered last year whether my son was actually on the spectrum. I had amazing results removing gluten from his diet and he was gluten free for at least 11 months. I will never know for sure if it was a gluten thing or a development thing, but it’s a ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’ thing. Yes perhaps Wakefield deals in pseudoscience, but I don’t think it’s a big leap to suggest that food and diet can influence behaviour, so I’m not convinced that that’s an aspect that need be discredited.

    • @Stitch Sista
      Gluten free diets can be amazingly helpful for some people with digestive problems that upset their whole metabolism to the point where there are cognitive signs and symptoms.
      How much those digestive problems are necessarily associated with autism spectrum disorders? There seems to be no concrete evidence that ASD folks suffer from digestive disorders any more than the neurotypical population.

  8. From troll-wrangling[Moderator note: this commentor
    is morphing their identity here.] – this is the kind of people we are up against – I am really dissapointed in the posters there called “Tracy” and “Anita”

  9. I was going to put a comment here, but it looks like you’ve covered pretty much everything there is to say. Thank you for writing this.
    Oh, except to note: that attitude towards their own kids with autism by the anti-vaxers? Also why I and probably a lot of people are very cautious about which autism-related advocacy groups are safe to touch even with a ten-foot bargepole. (This includes the ones that aren’t anti-vaccination and don’t push dubious “cures”.)

  10. Excellent post. I think it’s important to note how much of the anti-vax panic is connected to anti-autism panic, and as you pointed out, that’s very much present in the anti-vax rhetoric.

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