By Anne Dachel
In the days just before Sunday night’s Dateline, I was increasingly worried about how this whole complex issue of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine would be presented. Mostly, I didn’t want this to end like the 2004 IOM Report which seemed to slam the door on the argument over vaccines and autism. I didn’t want Paul Offit to have the last word, claiming all the studies disprove a link and thanks to Dr. Wakefield, unvaccinated kids were dying.
For endless years, the autism community has seen this controversy dismissed and denied out-of-hand by members of the media who couldn’t possibly consider that we might be right. This was different, however. While it did seem more like a war of personalities, with Andrew Wakefield on one side, up against British journalist Brian Deer and Dr. Offit on the other, we were given enough information to make it clear that this question of vaccines and autism will not be going away.
I spoke with Dr. Wakefield briefly following the show to get his opinion on the presentation and he told me that he was very disappointed that Matt Lauer had omitted two critical parts of the story. First of all, during the long interview, Wakefield had shown Lauer the studies that duplicated the findings of the Lancet paper. (John Stone has also compiled this information and posted it: HERE)
Wakefield wanted to make it clear to Lauer that he was not the only scientist saying these things. Incredibly, on Dateline, we were told by Lauer, Offit and in a written comment from the American Academy of Pediatrics, that all the studies done following Wakefield ’s work, showed no link between the MMR and bowel disease or autism.
The only statement Wakefield was able to make in his own defense was when he said, “Now there are many more doctors who are telling the same story and doing the same thing.” However, he was not allowed to explain that statement or offer proof.
Wakefield also objected to Lauer’s premise, namely that he is to blame for the heated autism-vaccine controversy. At the beginning of the show, Lauer announced, “This controversy was first triggered by just one doctor…,” which really made no sense when Wakefield was heard later describing how in 1995, a mother first contacted him about her son’s regressive autism and bowel pain after receiving the MMR vaccine. He told us that following that incident, “I received a multitude of calls telling exactly the same story.”
Lauer seems to have missed the point that Andrew Wakefield didn’t start this controversy, he responded to the concerns of many parents who were telling him about autism and a new bowel disorder that he’d never observed before. It makes no sense for Lauer to imply that if it weren’t for Wakefield ’s study, we wouldn’t be having his debate. Wakefield did the study because the question was being raised.
Last week, I made a list of things that I wanted to see in Lauer’s coverage and one thing I hoped for was the inclusion of comments by Dr. Bernadine Healy or Dr. Peter Fletcher. Fletcher was formerly the Chief Scientific Officer in the UK and he has spoken out about the possibility of damaging side effects from the MMR (HERE).
Healy is the former head of the National Institutes of Health and she has called for more studies to settle the question of a link between autism and vaccines. Healy was included in the Dateline report briefly saying, “All the questions have by no means been answered.” And on the Dateline website, it was possible to hear more of her comments on the link, "Vaccines and autism: An additional perspective." (HERE)
Online, she advised parents to talk with their children’s doctors about their fears concerning vaccines, and if physicians weren’t willing to do that, parents should “get a new pediatrician.” Those words ensure that doctors will continue to face more and more parents frightened that vaccines may harm their children.
Healy also stated, “The nature of medicine is having humility. I don’t think it’s terribly humble to say we have all the answers. Stop. Shut down the research. Don’t ask any questions. Just do what I say. That’s not the way medicine has ever been practiced and that’s not the way medicine advances. I think both in the area of autism and in the area of vaccines, there are many, many questions that need to be answered and they need a broad base of science.”
Her words sounded a lot like Wakefield ’s comments at the end of Dateline. He said, I’m 100 percent sure of nothing. I don’t have an answer for everything. I don’t know whether vaccines cause autism. I know it’s a legitimate question that needs to be asked. I’m not going to walk away from it.
Those riveting words assure parents that Wakefield will continue to look for answers and they equally send the chilling message to health officials that the controversy over vaccine safety will only get worse.
At one point, Lauer asked the question, “What if Dr. Wakefield is right?” That is the unthinkable to many, many health officials. What if through complete oversight failure, a generation of children has been exposed to unsafe vaccines with devastating results? We can pretend the only issue here involves theories of medicine, but in truth for countless people, self-protection is the driving force.
Peter Fletcher said it brilliantly in 2006, 'There are very powerful people in positions of great authority in Britain and elsewhere who have staked their reputations and careers on the safety of MMR and they are willing to do almost anything to protect themselves.’
When Lauer told us that 300,000 children in this country are diagnosed with autism, one in every 150 children has the disorder, he made it clear that when we talk about autism, we’re talking about children with autism. A once-rare disorder is now so common that everyone knows someone with an autistic child and no one can reasonably tell us why. Something is suddenly causing children to be sick. The medical community has no explanation. They can only tell us what they don’t know. The only thing they’re sure of is that the federally mandated vaccine program isn’t at fault.
How many more years will doctors be credible saying that vaccines aren’t the blame when thousands and thousands of parents say their children got sick after being vaccinated? It’s impossible to listen to the parents of the Lancet study children and not be alarmed about what happened to these children. (HERE)
How many more times will experts be allowed to dismiss the issue by saying, studies show no link, when clearly those studies have settled nothing?
At the end of our conversation, I asked Dr. Wakefield if he had any regrets about having agreed to the interview and he responded, “Ask me tomorrow.”
I’m hopeful he’ll feel satisfied that he made the right decision. Viewers watching Dateline heard two well-credentialed experts, Wakefield and Healy, say that the question has not been answered and reasonably call for more research on a health care crisis overwhelming a generation of children. As Wakefield told us, “The reason we’re sitting here, the reason it hasn’t gone away, is because it’s real.”
I'm also confident that this issue will finally be honestly addressed. We can all take heart from Wakefield's words, "The children are not going away. Their parents are not going away. I'm not going away."
Anne Dachel is Media Editor of Age of Autism.