In the world of medical research, Dr Andrew Wakefield is about as controversial a character as you can find.
It was Wakefield who was behind claims published in The Lancet in 1998 that pointed towards the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine being linked to autism in children. His paper and subsequent statements to the media that parents be wary of the vaccine, led to a slump in vaccination levels in the United Kingdom and around the world creating global distrust of vaccination in general.
In that respect, Wakefield has done untold damage, because his MMR-autism claims have been thoroughly discredited in numerous studies. Last week, the final nail was driven into the coffin that is Andrew Wakefield’s medical career, with the UK’s General Medical Council finding Wakefield and two colleagues guilty of a range of serious breaches in a failure to practice case. You can read the 142 page ruling here while scientists asked to comment on the ruling by the Science Media Centre in London give their take here.
Wakefield gave an interview to the Telegraph following the ruling.
The panel’s findings were astounding, both in their number and substance. More than 30 charges were found proven against Wakefield. For him alone they ran across 52 pages. Embracing four counts of dishonesty – including money, research and public statements – they painted a picture of a man not to be trusted. Uptake of the MMR vaccine dropped to under 80 per cent nationally and in some places fewer than 50 per cent of children had the recommended two doses. Cases of measles rose and Britain saw its first death from the disease for 14 years. Mumps reached epidemic levels in Britain in 2005.
The ruling against Wakefield is professionally devastating for him. As Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal told Deer:
’Any journal to which a researcher shown to be dishonest submitted a paper would reject it. They would say, ‘This man can’t be trusted’. His career as a researcher is effectively over.’
Deer’s investigations laid out on his website are well worth a read if you are interested in the ethical and professional breaches Wakefield has been judged on by the council. As for the doctor himself, he remains defiant as this rare NBC interview from late last year illustrates.
What is the legacy of the MMR-autism scandal for New Zealand? Well, New Zealand has low rates of immunisation relative to the rest of the Western world. Last year, measles cases were reported at ten times the usual number in New Zealand, because parents opted out of vaccination programmes. Part of that is down to difficulty in accessing immunisation in parts of the community, but a portion of it is down to the lingering paranoia around the MMR vaccine that Wakefield’s research caused.
At the Science Media Centre last year as measles cases were being reported all over the country, we asked Dr Samuel Katz, the co-inventor of the measles vaccine about the supposed link between MMR and austism. He told us:
’Measles vaccine is both safe and effective. Repeated studies in Europe and North America have totally disproved the claim that MMR led to autism and bowel disturbances. As with any biological item, there are unusual adverse reactions (allergic, hematologic, neurologic) but these are extraordinarily rare.’
The GMC investigation didn’t look at the scientific substance of Wakefield’s claims about autism – they have been pulled apart in peer-reviewed research as Dr Katz explains above. What the council nailed Wakefield on was his shoddy and dishonest approach to research and as such, he is no scapegoat.
But as Ben Goldacre points out in this Guardian column, Wakefield’s research would never have created the firestorm of media coverage it did if the media had looked at the methodology of the research:
The MMR scare has now petered out. It would be nice if we could say this was because the media had learned their lessons and recognised the importance of scientific evidence, rather than one bloke’s hunch.
Instead it has terminated because of the unethical behaviour of one man, Andrew Wakefield, which undermined the emotional narrative of their story. The media have developed no insight into their own role — and for this reason there will be another MMR.