By Dan Olmsted
On January 5, 2011, the British Medical Journal accused Dr. Andrew Wakefield of committing “an elaborate fraud” in the controversial 1998 Lancet report about 12 children who developed bowel disease and regressed after receiving the MMR shot. The cover article by journalist Brian Deer focused on “the bogus data behind claims that launched a worldwide scare over the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.”
Deer identified and interviewed parents of some of the children in the anonymous Lancet case series, describing what he said were significant disparities. “I traveled to the family home, 80 miles northeast of London, to hear about child 2 from his mother,” Deer wrote of one interview. The child had severe autism and gut problems that she blamed on the MMR.
What Deer did not say in the BMJ article is that he had lied to the mother about his identity, claiming to be someone named “Brian Lawrence” (his middle name). Deer had written a number of critical articles about parents’ claims of vaccine injury, and if he gave his real name, he doubtless feared, Child 2’s mother would not agree to talk to him. Once she checked his blog, she would be more likely to kick him out of the family home than sit still for what turned into a six-hour inquisition.
He even created a fake e-mail address for his fake identity, and he used it to communicate with her: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why did the highly respected British Medical Journal sanction such deceit involving the mother of a child who, whatever the cause, was severely disabled? When the interview took place in November 2003, more than seven years before the BMJ article, Deer was not working for the journal. He was on assignment for The Sunday Times of London.
The Sunday Times is owned by Rupert Murdoch, part of the News International division that has come under a Watergate-size cloud in England for its newsgathering tactics – fraudulently obtaining confidential information, bribing police, hacking 9,000 phone numbers, gaining access to bank accounts, and using large financial settlements to keep some victims quiet.
The BMJ article, titled “How the Case Against the MMR Vaccine Was Fixed,” has its roots in the Sunday Times. It is remarkably similar to one Deer wrote for the Sunday Times two years earlier, in February 2009. That article was titled MMR Doctor Andrew Wakefield Fixed Data on Autism and it cited much the same data and mentioned many of the same people featured in the BMJ article.
The BMJ imprimatur gave Deer – as well as the British Medical Association, which publishes the journal -- a “peer-reviewed” platform from which the story was broadcast far and wide, as conclusive proof of fraud. The BMJ dressed up its presentation with footnotes, charts, editorials, commentary and what it called “editorial checking.”
But clearly, the crux of the article came from reporting Deer did while affiliated with the Sunday Times. Along with evidence presented at a General Medical Council hearing, Deer wrote in the Sunday Times, he relied on “unprecedented access to medical records, a mass of confidential documents and cooperation from parents during an investigation by this newspaper.” His work, he said, exposed the “selective reporting and changes to findings that allowed a link between MMR and autism to be asserted.”
Deer did not identify Child 2 or his mother in either the Sunday Times or the BMJ – he didn’t need to. He had posted their names on his blog (subsequently removed); what’s more, the names were known because the mother had spoken out on the researchers’ behalf and was a claimant in a failed legal case over the vaccine. (Deer has said any allegation he “placed confidential information on my website” is false.)
False pretenses and confidentiality aside, the BMJ’s ethics code bars the use of anyone’s medical information without written permission -- even when the subject is anonymous.
“Any article that contains personal medical information about an identifiable living individual requires the patient’s explicit consent before we can publish it,” according to the policy (italics in original). “We will need the patient to sign our consent form, which requires the patient to have read the article.”
If she had done so, the journal would have gotten an earful about “Brian Lawrence,” Brian Deer and her subsequent dealings with the Sunday Times. That is the subject of our next article.
Dan Olmsted is Editor of Age of Autism, and co-author, with Mark Blaxill, of The Age of Autism – Mercury, Medicine, and a Man-Made Epidemic, to be published in paperback in September by Thomas Dunne Books.