A 1998 study of 12 patients in Lancet claimed to show a link between autism and childhood vaccines. The study spread panic among parents in the UK and the US, leading a significant number of parents to decide not to vaccinate their children for common childhood diseases, with measles vaccination rates dropping as low as 80% in Britain. CNN claims recent years have seen an increase in childhood measles.
Lancet fully retracted the study in 2010. An article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) now says that study was an active and intentional fraud perpetrated by the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield. This follows the earlier revelation that Wakefield had been paid by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers for the autism link, and that Wakefield failed to disclose that fact. CNN says in their article on the subject:
An investigation published by the British medical journal BMJ concludes the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases formed the basis of the 1998 study — and that there was “no doubt” Wakefield was responsible.
“It’s one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors then to admit that they made errors,” Fiona Godlee, BMJ’s editor-in-chief, told CNN. “But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying the data.”
CNN also quotes the BMJ paper itself as saying:
“Meanwhile, the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession.”
I couldn’t agree more. As with many medical studies, research with a tiny number of patients, and ambiguous results, was completely misconstrued in the first place. For years, deluded hippy parents have claimed a clear link between vaccines and autism, when none ever existed — even if Wakefield’s study had been accurate. I feel quite confident that people I know will jump in to defend the link between vaccines and autism even now, and frankly I’m not looking forward to having those conversations.
The panic spread by the idea that humans might be causing autism with childhood vaccinations spread like wildfire because too many people want to believe that the damage that corrupt human institutions do to this planet and to ourselves can be shown in every institution. This leads to misconstruing data in the case of worthless studies with tiny populations.
Now that it turns out the study was fraud to begin with — fraud for a specific and obvious financial gain — I suspect it will still serve as fuel for hippy assertions about childhood vaccines being damaging.
I don’t actually agree with BMJ’s editorial, quoted by CNN, that the damage in the field of autism itself is similarly dangerous:
“But perhaps as important as the scare’s effect on infectious disease is the energy, emotion and money that have been diverted away from efforts to understand the real causes of autism and how to help children and families who live with it,” the BMJ editorial states.
I don’t believe that at all; the two things are not of equivalent importance in my mind. As tragic as it is to misconstrue autism, I believe a distrust of vaccines has, overall, a far greater impact. Based on a study of 12 patients — 12 PATIENTS!!! — it has the potential to partially undo some of the greatest gains in public health achieved over the last hundred years. Even worse, this attitude helps cultivate a deep distrust of the medical profession specifically by using the very worst aspects of the medical profession! By “the worst aspects,” I mean a tendency to draw clinical conclusions from too-scant data for the purpose of getting headlines.
That deep distrust cultivated by things like the vaccine link encourages people to misplace their medical anxiety, and to pay attention to spurious concerns rather than focusing on the places where medicine really runs off the rails — in the insurance sector, in pharmaceutical-company malfeasance, and in rampant bureaucracy that results in a tragic lack of appropriate care for many patients.
But I’m with BMJ in thinking that misunderstanding autism is tragic and infuriating. It takes a little-understood disease and turns it into a weapon in the war against “the establishment.” It serves as a lightning rod for ill-advised distrust of “Western medicine,” allowing smugness to replace understanding. It turns those with autism into poster children for the breakdown of our medical system, instead of letting them be what they should: patients, clients and people.
Even though Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in Britain in May of last year, the damage he did is incalculable.