Andrew Wakefield, martyr

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May 24 2010 10:56 AM

Andrew Wakefield, martyr

[Note: I expect antivaxxers to flood the comments below with their typical spin and distortions. I urge everyone to read my comments policy. I also note that the article here is extensively linked to other sources backing up my claims about Wakefield and the antivax movement. The debunking of the vast majority of antivax claims can be found in those links.]

Andrew_WakefieldAndrew Wakefield, the man who more than anyone started the modern antivaccination movement that has led to the rise of measles, pertussis, and other preventable diseases, has been struck off the UK General Medical Council's register. The GMC registers doctors in the UK, and oversees their conduct. To be struck off is essentially the same as being disbarred.

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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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This is indeed good news, but forgive me if I don't dance in the streets. It hardly makes any difference, and is years too late.

In 1998, Wakefield published a paper which led to people thinking vaccines caused autism. His research was shoddy, poorly done, unethical, and, frankly, wrong. Eventually the original paper was withdrawn by the medical journal in which it was published.

Syringe, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/8499561@N02/2756332192/That's all great, in that eventually truth won out. But has it, really? Sure, he's disbarred, and reality-based people understand he's totally wrong. But the antivax movement still rolls on. Wakefield moved to Texas where he still spreads his antivax propaganda; he was on NBC's TODAY show just this morning -- what a coincidence! -- still proclaiming his innocence, and still spreading falsehoods about vaccines.

And falsehoods they are. From the NBC page:

When [host Matt] Lauer asked Wakefield whether it’s dangerous to continue promoting an MMR-autism link when it causes many families to shy away from vaccinating their children, Wakefield answered, "Matt, you’re missing the point.

"The point is that despite denying it, in the public relations campaign they’ve used against me and against the parents, they are conceding these in vaccine court."

Actually, that's completely wrong, and he should know better. For one thing, courts have ruled over and again that there is no evidence to link vaccines and autism. What Wakefield is most likely referring to is the Hannah Poling case, which can be twisted and spun into making it sound like it connects vaccines and autism, but it doesn't. Read Steve Novella's entry on that case to see how once again the truth eludes Wakefield.

For another, Lauer was not missing the point at all. Wakefield was dodging the point. Lauer was precisely correct; it is dangerous to promote a link that doesn't exist between autism and vaccines, for exactly the reason Lauer stated.

It would've been interesting indeed to see Matt Lauer following up that question with asking Wakefield about his huge financial conflict of interest in all this, since Wakefield was developing an alternative to vaccines when he wrote that paper. Or if he had anything to say about investigative journalist Brian Deer -- a man who has been at the forefront of exposing Wakefield all along -- and the evidence he found that alleges Wakefield was paid by lawyers to start a vaccine scare?

Anyway, for years Wakefield has been claiming he's the victim here. This news won't change that, and will in fact make him a martyr to his reality-impaired followers.

He's not the victim here. The real victims are people who get measles, people who get rubella, people who get pertussis. Most of the time these folks recover and are fine, though miserable. But sometimes it's not such a happy ending. Dana McCaffery, a four week old girl in Australia, died last year because the herd immunity was too low where she lived. Because people chose not to vaccinate -- and the antivax movement was strong there -- that little girl died.

We're seeing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases all over the world, and in many of those regions the voices of Wakefield and the antivaxxers are strong. I'm glad the GMC finally took action and did the right thing, but this does not mean we must rest in our fight against those zealots who believe -- without any evidence, and plenty of evidence against them -- that vaccines cause autism.

They don't. But how many kids will get sick before everyone finally realizes that?

Syringe picture from ZaldyImg's Flickr photostream, used under the Creative Commons license.

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