The Fallacy of the MMR-Autism Link

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In 1998, British gastroenterologist and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper in a UK medical journal, The Lancet, alleging that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine caused children to develop autism. He also claimed that it could lead to bowel disease, hence why a gastroenterologist was involved in the first place, but it’s the autism link that has stirred up such controversy.

Wakefield’s study led to widespread panic from concerned parents, causing MMR vaccination rates to dip dramatically in the UK, US, and Ireland. After the paper was published, Wakefield held a press conference where he called for a halt in MMR vaccinations in the UK until more research could be done on the adverse effects he believed the shots could cause.

It all sounded pretty damning, so it wasn’t surprising that those in the anti-vaccination camp embraced Wakefield’s study, with the founder of one anti-vaccination group calling Wakefield their “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled into one.”

However, as soon as Wakefield’s study is looked into, it’s found to have not just one or two small problems, but serious issues relating to every single aspect of it.

To start with, Wakefield’s study had just twelve participants—hardly a sample size large enough to be considered scientifically rigorous. Additionally, for studies to pass muster, participants must be blindly selected: of course, if one is conducting a study based on a specific condition, the participants must have that condition, but they shouldn’t be selected based on criteria other than that. In Wakefield’s study however, his twelve participants were not random. In fact, many of them were litigants in a suit that was currently being prepared against vaccine manufacturers. The lawyers who were preparing the suit were from the Legal Aid Board, which provides legal assistance to UK citizens, and they paid Wakefield over fifty-five thousand pounds to conduct the study. Wakefield never disclosed this payment to editors at The Lancet, an act that should engender suspicion.

This wasn’t Wakefield’s first time accusing Big Pharma: in the early 1990s, he claimed that the measles vaccine could cause Crohn’s Disease, despite all of the research completed that failed to confirm his hypothesis. After this was struck down, Wakefield turned his attention to the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and he was put on the trail by a woman named Rosemary Kessick, the mother of a boy with autism and the founder of a group tellingly named Allergy Induced Autism. Just as with Wakefield’s study participants, Wakefield chose to take guidance only from those who supported his personal agenda.

After the wave of fear from Wakefield’s paper peaked, journalists and scientists started to express a hefty amount of suspicion, with one investigative journalist, Brian Deer, digging into the study to discover its many, glaring problems. It was Deer who found the pending litigation suit and the payoff from the lawyers. But that’s not all he found. Deer also discovered that Wakefield manipulated and changed conflicting data in his study. For instance, three of the children in the study who were reported as having regressive autism were later found to have not been diagnosable with autism at all. Additionally, though the study claimed that all children had been perfectly healthy prior to their MMR vaccination, five of the subjects were found to have had documented pre-existing conditions. Deer also found that Wakefield had, along with the father of one of the subjects, planned to release what he called a “diagnostic kit,” essentially a single-jab measles vaccination, and had even submitted a patent for the rival vaccine. Wakefield estimated that he could make about forty-three million pounds from the new test. Wakefield and his lawyers denied the charge.

Deer culled all of his research into a one-hour television program, all about the hoax that Wakefield had perpetrated. After the report went public, Wakefield sued Deer, the television station that aired Deer’s program, the production company which had helped produce the piece, and The Sunday Times. If he thought the ensuing case could help vindicate him, he was wrong. During two years of trial proceedings, he made no headway. In fact, it only served to further throw suspicion on him and his study. After the revelation that the fee Legal Aid lawyers had paid him was far more than first suspected—actually more than four hundred thousand pounds, rather than the original claim of fifty-five thousand—Wakefield bowed out of the suit and was forced to pay all of the defendants’ legal fees.

After the court case, the British General Medical Council convened a hearing to decide whether Wakefield was fit to continue practicing medicine in the UK. The proceedings revealed more ethical issues and medical fabrications, with one of Wakefield’s graduate students testifying that conflicting data was ignored or buried. The GMC also found that Wakefield ordered expensive, invasive and unnecessary tests like colonoscopies and lumbar punctures without approval from the pediatric board and without indication from the patient’s medical histories that these procedures were necessary. Deer found that the tests were so painful for the children in the study that, on occasion, three nurses were recruited to hold patients down. The GMC also found that Wakefield had conducted the study on a basis not approved by the hospital’s ethics committee, and that he had paid children at his son’s birthday party for blood samples: five pounds each. After the proceedings came to a close, the GMC found Wakefield guilty of three dozen different charges, including four counts of dishonesty and twelve counts of abuse of developmentally challenged children. Wakefield was stripped of his license, and is barred from practicing medicine in the UK. Though he lives in the US currently, he is not licensed to practice here at all.

Though the paper first came out close to twenty years ago and has been disproved since, the controversies it created continue to exist in force. This past year, a “documentary” was produced called Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Controversy. Its trailer features a variety of home videos, testimonials from angry parents, and a former scientist for the CDC named William Thompson, who claims that Wakefield’s paper was right all along, but governments the world over have been engaged in a vast smear campaign/cover-up to make sure the truth never gets out. (Incidentally, we never see Thompson on camera: his role is relegated to several phone calls, which were recorded without his knowledge, and which many pointed out were clearly spliced together.) Rosemary Kessick, founder of Allergy Induced Autism also makes an appearance in Vaxxed and is one of many of Wakefield’s former colleagues to do so. Some began to feel concerned when the documentary appeared: science, by its very nature, is indefinite, and some wondered if they’d been inadvertently harming their children for years. However, documentary mimics Wakefield’s original study in that it too, has serious problems once it is examined. Wakefield himself is a key part of the film, which describes him as a gastroenterologist, though he’s been stripped of his license for some years. Vaxxed was produced by a company called Autism Media Channel, which seems understandable, given the content. However, Wakefield is the director of the organization. A look at the credit list for the film reveals that he also wrote and directed the film. Though the trailer declared it a Tribeca Film Festival pick, it was pulled from the festival shortly after it was chosen, due to an avalanche of complaints.

So Wakefield, it seems, isn’t going anywhere. And unfortunately, though he’s been exposed as a fraud more times than are trackable, his claims are still being used by parents who choose not to vaccinate. Wakefield and his study are unshakeable: argue logic all you want, but truth doesn’t seem to matter to those who buy into his belief. The paper was partially redacted by The Lancet in 2004, and fully redacted in 2010, with the Editor-in-Chief calling it “utterly false.” Ten of his twelve coauthors published a retraction of the study, also in 2004, and one of them admitted, “I am certainly not aware of any convincing evidence for the hypothesis of a link between MMR and autism.” Finally, Wakefield’s study has never been able to be replicated, which is an absolute must in the scientific method.

Since Wakefield’s paper was published, measles rates have spiked in the UK: there were fifty-six total cases of measles in 1998, the year Wakefield’s paper was released. By 2006, there were four hundred and forty nine confirmed cases in the first five months of the year alone. Mumps outbreaks also rose dramatically, from almost zero cases in ‘98 to nearly five thousand in the first month of 2005. As more parents chose not to vaccinate because of falsified evidence, herd immunity was badly compromised. Several of these patients sustained serious and permanent damage due to the disease, with some so seriously infected that they died. There have been five major outbreaks since the paper was published, with the most serious one occurring in Italy, in which over five thousand people were hospitalized and the country spent an estimate of between seventeen and twenty two million euros to treat the epidemic. All this, from diseases we’ve known how to cure since the 1960s.

All of this is to say one thing: Wakefield’s study was not a scientifically rigorous one, yet parents continue not to vaccinate, based on specious science from a man who violated his Hippocratic Oath many times over and seems to have been living for the bottom line.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) website lists seven major diseases, once strong enough to ravage the populace and whose very name brought fear into the hearts of those who heard it, that have been nearly eradicated by the discovery and proliferation of proper vaccinations. Though if Wakefield and those who follow his credo, worshipping him as some Christ-Mandela like saviour, have anything to say about it, the list may shrink dramatically. After all, they’ve already targeted the last on UNICEF’s list of diseases once thought near extinction: number seven is measles.