This is HUGE: The BMJ, an online medical journal, has accused Andrew Wakefield — the hero of the modern antivaccination movement — of being "a fraud".
The skeptic and medical community have been hammering Wakefield for years; his study linking vaccines and autism was shaky from the start, and he suffered a series of humiliating defeats last year: the Lancet medical journal withdrew his paper, he was struck off the UK General Medical Council’s register, and was found to have acted unethically.
Of course, the word "fraud" implies intent; when writing about Wakefield I had my suspicions, but always wrote as if he were just wrong, and not deliberately lying to vulnerable parents.
But deliberate fraud is what he’s now accused of. Brian Deer, an investigative journalist, has written a multi-part series on the BMJ site which slams Wakefield. Fiona Godlee, BMJ’s editor-in-chief, also writes about this… and just to be clear, she uses the word "fraud" nine times in her editorial. Not surprisingly, it’s been picked up by several news outlets like CNN, MSNBC, and ABC.
Deer has been on Wakefield’s case a long time, and has been critical in exposing Wakefield’s shenanigans. Wakefield and the antivaxxers have attacked Deer many times, but their accusations are as hollow as the claims of links of autism to vaccinations. And let’s be clear: vaccines don’t cause autism.
Deer has long shown that Wakefield had a lot of financial incentive to create a fear of vaccines, including lawyers paying him to find a link to autism, as well as Wakefield developing his own version of a measles vaccine. From CNN:
According to BMJ, Wakefield received more than 435,000 pounds ($674,000) from the lawyers. Godlee said the study shows that of the 12 cases Wakefield examined in his paper, five showed developmental problems before receiving the MMR [measles-mumps-rubella] vaccine and three never had autism.
"It’s always hard to explain fraud and where it affects people to lie in science," Godlee said. "But it does seem a financial motive was underlying this, both in terms of payments by lawyers and through legal aid grants that he received but also through financial schemes that he hoped would benefit him through diagnostic and other tests for autism and MMR-related issues."
The original study has been shown by several investigations to have been terrible; as the quoted part above mentions several of the children never had autism, and many showed signs of it before they were vaccinated. Despite this, Wakefield became a hero to the antivax movement.
Brian Deer’s article on BMJ is nothing short of a tour-de-force, and is a horrifying tale of how Wakefield allegedly falsified medical research deliberately while operating under a huge conflict of interest. Deer’s article is meticulously referenced and footnoted… but still, I know this won’t stop the antivaxxers. The large movements aren’t based on good evidence, and no matter how much solid evidence you show them, they’ll reject it.
What I do hope is that parents out there will see this and pause. I am a parent, and I went through all the usual fears you get when you have a child. I can only imagine the suffering so many parents out there have undergone, and with tremendous heartache I’ve read many, many accounts of their feeling of desperation and hopelessness. But we cannot let our fear override what’s best for our children.
The antivax movement is dangerous because when vaccination rates drop it puts everyone at risk, but especially the most defenseless among us: infants. We are seeing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease all over the world, and we’re seeing infants too young to be vaccinated dying because of lowered herd immunity. This is no joke, no exaggeration: babies are dying. There are many potential causes of lower vaccine rates, but the antivax movement is is not helping the situation.
Andrew Wakefield may not have started the antivax movement, but he certainly egged it on very strongly, along with such mouthpieces as Jenny McCarthy, and Meryl Dorey and the AVN in Australia. If the charges of fraud can be made to stick, then we might be able to make some progress toward reality once again, and lower the rate of outbreaks of measles, pertussis, and polio… and save a lot of lives in the process.