Antivaxxer movement leader found to have acted unethically

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Jan. 28 2010 12:40 PM

Antivaxxer movement leader found to have acted unethically

Continuing a month of skeptical victories, the UK's General Medical Council has found that Andrew Wakefield -- the founder of the modern antivaccination movement -- acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" when doing the research that led him to conclude that vaccinations were linked with autism. This is being reported everywhere, including the BBC, Sky News, the Yorkshire Evening Post, and more.

Syringe, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/8499561@N02/2756332192/The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK, rather like the AMA in the US) didn't investigate whether his claims were correct or not -- and let's be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong -- only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children's clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Wow. Again, let's be clear: that's a whole lot of ethical damnation from the UK's leading medical board.

Not to pile on here, but I was rather surprised that they didn't mention the claims -- supported by a lot of evidence -- that on top of all that unethical behavior, he may have faked his results, too. There's also no mention of his grave conflict of interest-- at the time he published his paper slamming vaccines and which started the antivax craze, he was developing an alternative to vaccinations, so he had a very large monetary incentive to make the public distrust vaccines.

The GMC has not announced whether he (and two of his cohorts) will be sanctioned or not. I'll be very curious to see what they do.

Will this deter Wakefield and the antivax movement? Ha! Of course not. Note that supporters of Wakefield heckled the GMC members as they read their announcements.

Also, the evidence was already overwhelming that Wakefield was wrong, just as it's overwhelming that vaccines are totally and completely unrelated to autism. But the antivaxxers' world is not based on evidence. It's more like a dogmatic religion, since many of its believers will twist and distort the truth to fit their views, even, tragically, if it means babies will die.

The antivax movement is resulting in the deaths of children from preventable diseases, many of which were all but gone in the United States. We're seeing the return of measles, mumps, pertussis, even polio -- polio, which was eradicated entirely in the US by 1994. Because vaccines are so effective, people don't remember these diseases and how they would kill, and now the antivaxxers are paving the way for their return.

This ruling against Wakefield is a step in the right direction, but the path is long and the antivaxxers will be there at every one of these steps, trying desperately to trip up reality. It's up to us to make sure that we keep walking.

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