Andrew Wakefield Tries to Shift Blame for UK Measles Epidemic

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April 14 2013 8:00 AM

Andrew Wakefield Tries to Shift Blame for UK Measles Epidemic

Dr Andrew Wakefield
The now-throughly discredited Andrew Wakefield on Jan. 28, 2010, shortly after the ruling that he had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in carrying out his research.

Photograph by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images.

Right now, in the UK, the outbreak of measles has reached epidemic proportions. Nearly 700 people have come down with the highly contagious disease in south Wales, and that number may double. Measles can cause a nasty rash and high fever, and in children can cause ear infections, encephalitis, and death.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

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

Yes, death. Measles can kill.

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So right now would be the worst of all possible times to give Andrew Wakefield precious front-page space on a newspaper to promote his incredibly dangerous antivax nonsense. Yet that’s exactly what the UK newspaper The Independent did.

Andrew Wakefield is the one who published a paper in The Lancet that started the modern fear of vaccines; the paper contained shoddy and subsequently disproven work in 1998 that contributed so much to the antivaccination movement of today. His work has been called fraudulent by the British Medical Journal, and the paper was so awful The Lancet retracted it. Time and again, MMR vaccines have been shown to have no link to autism, which is what Wakefield claimed. His serious professional misconduct led to his being struck off the official listing of doctors in the UK.

He is widely blamed for the recent outbreaks of preventable diseases. In recent years, vaccination rates have dropped, and we’ve seen outbreaks of pertussis (including in my home town of Boulder, with an infant nearly killed by it) and measles all over the world.

So why did The Independent give him a front page link on their site to air a diatribe blaming the government for the epidemic? That’s right, Wakefield had a press release saying the government’s interest was more in protecting the vaccine than protecting children, which is particularly rich coming from someone who was found to have used children unethically and with “callous disregard” in his own study. And The Independent ran his screed in its entirety.

The good news is, after getting blasted by skeptics like Ben Goldacre, the press release was taken down. If you want you can still read it the drippingly antivax site Age of Autism (read that site at your own risk). I do want to point out that in an irony so thick it’s palpable, Wakefield refers to vaccine researcher Paul Offit as a millionaire, using the old “follow the money” tactic. Really, Mr. Wakefield? Do you really want us to do that?

Back to The Independent, they also ran an article about Wakefield and vaccines along with the press release. To be fair, the article does condemn Wakefield, and if read carefully it does do a somewhat decent job overall of discrediting him. But it does have to be read all the way through, which is not something most people do these days (I expect the comments below to this very post will prove my point pretty well). And the headline with the article was, “MMR scare doctor: this outbreak proves I was right”.

Technically correct, but c’mon. That’s not a good synopsis of the article, to say the least. Martin Robbins at New Statesman dismantles the article thoroughly, and I strongly urge you to read that.

This kind of thing is not to be toyed with; people’s lives are at stake. Babies die due to these illnesses, easily preventable diseases if more people would get actual facts about vaccines.

My vaccinations are up-to-date. So are my wife’s. So are my daughter’s, including Gardasil. We understand the very small risks as well as the very large advantages of vaccinations. We also know the need for herd immunity.

You should understand them too. Don’t believe Wakefield. Don’t believe Jenny McCarthy. Don’t believe Age of Autism, or the Australian Vaccine Network, or any of those so-called “vaccine injury” groups. Talk to a real, board-certified doctor, and get their recommendation about vaccination.

What's happening in Wales can happen anywhere where vaccination rates are low. It's happening in my hometown. I sincerely hope it won't happen in yours.

Tip o’ the syringe to Rachael Dunlop and Ben Goldacre.