In January 2011, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) published a blistering 3-part series (here, here, here) and an editorial (here) accusing Dr. Wakefield of committing fraud in his study of bowel disease.
The tone is harsh, the articles lengthy and involved, the findings absolute, and the judgment final. Dr. Wakefield is a fraud. To top it off, it’s published in the British Medical Journal – one of the UK’s most prestigious journals. There’s only one problem. It’s a manufactured piece of gibberish with no basis in fact.
Dr. Wakefield is being attacked in an attempt to suppress science – specifically his Lancet study (here) that was published in 1998. Wakefield found bowel disease in children with autism spectrum disorder and raised questions about the safety of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine. The study is valid and scientifically sound.
The British Medical Journal’s campaign to discredit Dr. Wakefield may be the greatest suppression of science episode ever attempted. It is estimated that over 150 million Americans were duped into believing the claims made against him.
The attacks on Dr. Wakefield are a crude reminder that there has always been conflict between those who serve science and those who want to censor it. Science advances at a cost, and the British Medical Journal has shown they are willing to pay any price – to sacrifice science itself – in order to declare victory on the battlefield of autism and vaccines.
Dr. Wakefield is a man of honor, principle, and integrity. He came to the US in 2004, as many scientists do, to continue his research without fear of reprisals. Seven years after leaving the UK – and 13 after his Lancet study – the British Medical Journal pursued Wakefield across the Atlantic in a campaign to silence him once and for all. Science be damned.
The British Medical Journal misjudged Dr. Wakefield’s commitment to science and picked a fight with the wrong guy.
Why Pick a Fight Based on a Lie?
Culture is a tricky thing. Did the British Medical Journal think it would just blow into town and tell a lie so big no one would notice? Did the editors seriously believe the same type of tabloid journalism that is standard practice in the UK would find a welcome home in the US?
Obviously they did. The allegations, the character assassination, the sensational overblown trumpeting of “Wakefield the fraud,” and the claim of unbiased investigative journalism had, after all, been spoon fed to the British, with nary a hitch. The British public had been duped. Why not the Americans?
To any student of Anglo-American history, this was a risky venture. Americans are fiercely independent – the British not so much. We don’t take kindly to other nations targeting Americans. Europe, on the other hand, is a swirling pot of nations, used to shooting at each other for centuries.
The greatest difference between the US and UK lies in how Americans fight to protect their freedoms. It’s a strange and somewhat dangerous concept to outsiders looking in. But it’s a value that shapes our thoughts and actions from cradle to grave.
We take our freedoms seriously, particularly the freedom of speech. The BMJ’s campaign to silence Wakefield flies in the face of what this country holds most dear.
In the UK, one learns one’s place at an early age. It’s a stifling society with a rigid class system made up of the nobility and commoners; it hasn’t changed all that much in the last 300 years. Lords, dukes, earls, and sirs fill the top slots of industry, academia, and government, reminding everyone else of their betters.
Creativity takes a back seat to etiquette, and etiquette flows from the top down. Manners, a stiff upper lip, and being proper are not mere courtesies – they are the life blood of British society. When creativity does make an appearance, it comes out sideways in that very British “Pink Floyd” or “Monty Python” way. The British know they are oppressed, and they scream at it or laugh about it. What they don’t do is challenge it.
We have old-boy networks in the US, but nothing compared to the permanent insider track to power, money, and privilege bestowed by birth in the UK. The one word to describe Britain is “club.” Like the Cosa Nostra, the first rule is “omerta”: absolute silence and secrecy must be kept at all times.
Challenging the status quo is an affront to the established order. When one is called “Lord This” or “Sir That” all his life, it creates pomposity – a breeding ground of arrogance. Something is right by virtue of you having done it. Multiply that a thousand times over and you have a taste of the arrogance of the upper class. Mere commoners are to know their place and to keep their mouths shut.
Unlike anything published in US science, the British Medical Journal articles are personal and vindictive. When the code of silence is broken, the Cosa Nostra leaves a dead fish wrapped in a newspaper (signifying the person sleeps with the fishes); in the UK, the British assassinate the person in the press.
In a series of major missteps, the BMJ underestimated Dr. Wakefield’s integrity and commitment to science, ignored how Americans feel about freedom of speech, and allowed class arrogance to run roughshod over common sense.
Although active and willful ignorance both played a part, neither can fully explain the reckless transatlantic pursuit of Wakefield. The BMJ articles were carefully calculated. There must have been reasons big enough to compel the British Medical Journal to roll the dice and press the attack 13 years after the Lancet study was published.
A Dirty Little Secret
Dig a little deeper and, sure enough, it was in the best interest of the UK to silence Dr. Wakefield. The elements of a “crime” are coming together: means, motive, and opportunity.
In 1988, the UK began the country’s first mass measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) immunization program with a vaccine that the National Health Service knew to be defective. Canada suspended the vaccine’s license in 1987 due to adverse events, and a number of other countries also raised serious concerns about the vaccine’s safety.
Science be damned. The UK introduced the defective Urabe strain MMR vaccine and the program was a disaster. Thousands of British children suffered severe adverse reactions, and the government denied the damage.
Unknown to the public, UK regulators had indemnified at least one pharmaceutical company, the UK producer of the Urabe MMR, from civil lawsuits. The government itself, and its regulators, were on the hook for the foreseeable damage. What was already a public disaster had the potential of turning into a personal one for health officials at the highest level.
The cover-up is often worse than the crime. So it was here. Health officials could not admit the vaccine was defective. Doing so would nail the government for millions of dollars in liability and expose the dirty little “indemnity” secret regulators had so generously given the UK manufacturer.
The dam of denial seemed to be holding until Dr. Wakefield published a study suggesting a possible link between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease, and autism. (Some of the children in the study had been damaged by the Urabe MMR.) Wakefield’s paper created a firestorm. And the bastard wouldn’t shut up. Wakefield was in the papers, he was on TV, he was all over the place cautioning parents about the risk of the MMR.
The government removed the defective MMR vaccine from use in the UK in 1992, four years after its introduction. The last thing health officials needed was someone kicking up a storm – especially a respected research gastroenterologist at the Royal Free in London.
But denial was no longer enough. Denying a mother’s claim of injury was one thing, fighting a scientist quite another. Adding injury to insult, Wakefield was not only raising scientific questions about vaccine safety, he knew about the secret 1988 deal to indemnify the UK manufacturer.
The campaign of denial shifted to attack mode. Enormous pressure was brought to bear on Wakefield to withdraw the study’s findings, but Wakefield refused – the science was good. In 2001, Wakefield left his position at the Royal Free, ending his career in the UK.
Wakefield’s attempts to alert the public about the defective MMR Urabe strain vaccine fell on deaf ears. The political pressure to continue the cover-up was too great.
Seeking refuge from politically-motivated censorship and retribution, Wakefield did what millions of others have done before him: he came to America to continue his work.
Dylan Thomas called it “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” The irrepressible search for truth is another way to say it. America offered Wakefield new opportunities to continue his research. The UK was too compromised to allow him to pursue the truth. Wakefield packed up his family and headed to the US to find and publish the results of wherever the science led him.
Continuing the Fight
The brouhaha in the UK continued, although Wakefield was now long gone, and in 2010, the General Medical Council (GMC), the regulators of the UK medical profession, yanked Dr. Wakefield’s right to practice medicine in the UK. The biased tribunal included many of the officials who had originally approved the defective Urabe strain MMR vaccine.
But it was not enough for the UK medical establishment to strike Wakefield from the medical register. There was still too much at stake. The Urabe disaster would not go away, and Wakefield was building support in the US – talking, publishing, and naming names. The bastard would not shut up.
It was the perfect storm to sink the HMS Wakefield. The BMJ provided the means; self-preservation on the part of the government officials the motive; and the GMC tribunal’s findings provided the cover. There was one little problem. The HMS Wakefield was no longer moored in the UK.
Wakefield is a US resident, protected by US law, living in Texas – attacked by a foreign publication on US soil. This is where it starts to get interesting.
Y’all take care. We’ll talk soon.