humour with a serious message – the vaccine/autism ‘debate’

By Alison Campbell 29/03/2010

From time to time the ‘debate’ around vaccinations re-surfaces in the headlines. A number of other NZ bloggers have addressed this (here, & here, for example). It’s a much hotter topic as in the US, where a number of high-profile ‘anti-‘ groups keep vaccines in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. 

Don’t get me wrong – I have an enormous amount of sympathy for people whose children have become ill some period of time after receiving a vaccine. But apparent correlations in time do not equate to causation, a fact that lies at the heart of this issue and makes me wonder how effective we are at communicating about the nature of science to the community at large.

This is a real concern. Following Andrew Wakefield’s now thoroughly discredited claims about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, vaccination rates in the UK dropped to the point that measles in particular is again widespread in some communities. And while it can be a ‘trivial’ illness in most children, measles carries a real risk of serious illness & in some cases death (a risk that is several orders of magnitude higher than the risk of severe adverse effects from the vaccination itself).

Anyway, a very recent Downfall parody takes aim at the US opponents of vaccination – most of the names mentioned in this clip are those of prominent players in this group. The ‘Paul Thoresen’ mentioned first up is a scientist associated with a couple of research groups who may or may not have been involved in a misappropriation of funds – whether or not this is true has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the research done by those groups, something that seems to have escaped the ‘anti-‘ commenters.


PS readers might also be interested in this post at ScienceBased Medicine, which examines some of the ‘vaccines don’t work’ claims.


0 Responses to “humour with a serious message – the vaccine/autism ‘debate’”

  • It is grossly irresponsible to describe Andrew Wakefield’s work as being discredited, the GMC took great care to make it clear that their decision had nothing to do with his findings or his conclusions. Instead they focused entirely on so called breaches of protocol and whether the work had ethical approval. A US lawyer’s account of the GMC decision suggests that it will have dire consequences for the practice of medicine and that it will kill off innovative clinical care.

    As to Dr Paul Thoresen, he appears to have been missing with $2 million since last March. Any research that is conducted within such sloppy accounting that $2 million can be sloshing around for Dr Thoresen to get his hands upon suggests dodgy dealing, never mind that a co-author Kristeen Madsen turns out to have been his partner or that others worked for the Danish Serum Institute, a vaccine manufacturer producing Thimerosal vaccines and exporting them! Isn’t it entirely possible that Dr Thoresen viewed this money as dirty money gained by fraud from delivering up dodgy studies and therefore his by right having surrendered his integrity and professional reputation to get it. Perhaps Dr Thoresen, already holding additional posts expressly forbidden by his contract with Aarhus University has seen the game is up and decided to get out in a hurry? Why has he not been found in 12 months? Is no one looking? Why might that be? Would he be a greater threat in custody than he is at large?
    There are seemingly no unvaccinated autistic people in the UK, what does that suggest?

    Tony Bateson, Oxford, UK.

    • There were definite (not ‘so-called’) breaches in Wakefield’s protocol – this & the lack of ethical approval for what was done would, by themselves, have meant his findings were questionable. In addition the PCR work used to show that measles virus was in the guts of the children he studied has been pretty much discredited (no negative controls, strong evidence of contamination, & so on).
      Casting aspersions on Dr Thoresen still doesn’t negate the findings of that project (for which, I reiterate, he was neither lead author nor head of the lab in which it was done).
      On your third point – it suggests that I would want to see the data set on which your assertion is based. It sounds rather like the claim from US ant-vax groups that the Amish, who don’t vaccinate, don’t develop autism. Which is not the case.

    • And a further response – this is a quote from Orac’s Respectful Insolence blog (

      The General Medical Council (the U.K.’s equivalent to a state medical board, only for the whole country) had found proved three dozen charges against Wakefield, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally-challenged children; 11 counts of “high risk” research performed without ethical approval; 9 counts of carrying out research that was contrary to the children’s clinical interests; three counts of having children undergo lumbar punctures that were not clinically indicated; and three of Wakefield ordering medical tests without the necessary qualifications to do so and in breach of his non-clinical employment contract.

      If that’s not ‘discredited’ research then what is it?

  • Just to add to Alison’s reply, my understanding is that the science of Wakesfield’s work was questioned by other scientists more-or-less immediately after it was published. Most of the co-authors quickly dissociated themselves from him on learning about his activities, which also speaks loudly (this happened long before the formal retraction of the paper). The point is the paper was essentially discredited (your word) by the people that mattered—other scientists—quite early on. Supporters of Wakefield rarely mention this.

    I’ve written earlier giving some of the background to this:

    I agree with Alison, pointing at Dr Thoresen doesn’t say anything for Wakefield. To me it does beg comparison with the money Wakesfield pocketed, though (not an insubstantial amount either).

    That a co-worker is a spouse or partner is in itself not a negative (unless there are unusual circumstances); it’s not that unusual to find husband-and-wife teams in science. I know of several, excellent scientists too.

    Industry-academia collaborations aren’t evil in and of themselves, either. The answer to the lies in open disclosure and the research, not that there is an industry-academia collaboration in and of itself.

  • The GMC may not be techincally able to discredit his “work” but the Lancet’s full retraction of the study certainly does. So does the fact that ten of the thirteen authors retracted the findings.