A question for the electors of Oxford West and Abingdon – are your patient records safe with Evan Harris MP?
By John Stone
As the British government motors ahead to put all NHS patient records on-line the issue of patient confidentiality has become highly sensitive. Indeed, the question is only made more sensitive by the possibility that patient confidentiality could be broken for political ends.
These issues are now coming to a head in what has become known as the Wakefield affair, although they reach back more than six years to the original allegations against the three Royal Free doctors - who not only include Andrew Wakefield, but his colleagues Profs John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch – made by Liberal-Democrat MP Dr Evan Harris and Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer.
Even now Deer states on his website:
"For reference, with regard to Brian Deer's MMR investigation, almost all of the key facts and documents are not public domain, and, such is the culture of plagiarism, he will act against authors who represent his writing, interviews, documents, or other research, as the fruit of their own inquiries, whether referenced or not." (HERE)
But the problem should have been all too apparent from the beginning when Deer and Harris made allegations about patients in Wakefield’s Lancet ‘early report’ also being enrolled in the group litigation against the MMR manufacturers. While it is not possible for many of us to agree with the construction placed on events by Deer and Harris it remains a question how the claims about the overlap could have been made without reference to confidential patient records. Indeed, disturbingly Deer stated in a recent letter to on-line British Medical Journal:
“I know the names and family backgrounds of all 12 of the children enrolled in the study, including the child enrolled from the United States.” (HERE)
In his original Sunday Times report Deer wrote:
“Of the eight children whose parents were eventually reported in The Lancet as having associated the jab with the onset of their child’s autism, “four, perhaps five” were covered by the legal aid contract.” (HERE)
Harris had accompanied Deer to the Lancet offices four days earlier to ambush Wakefield and the other doctors with the allegations. Lancet editor, Richard Horton, later recalled in his book about the MMR affair:
“The tension had been heightened ...by the shadowy presence of Evan Harris, a Liberal-Democrat MP.”
And goes on a little further down:
"A whirlwind of innuendo ensued which caught us all in its wake. Evan Harris, the MP who had mysteriously joined Brian Deer at the Lancet's offices, called for an independent inquiry into Wakefield's research. Put on the backfoot by the sudden escalation in media interest and by Harris's calls for a public inquiry, Britain's Health Secretary, John Reid, urged the General Medical Council...to investigate Wakefield as "a matter of urgency". (HERE)
Whether or not Reid was really “on the back foot” (a cricketing expression) Deer and Harris’s allegation were rapidly supported by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson (HERE) while the National Health Service website ‘MMR the Facts’ had a page linking to Deer’s personal site (HERE).
Within three days Deer had lodged the first of at least three complaints to the UK’s General Medical Council against the doctors, although the GMC’s lawyers chose not to publicly acknowledge his role (HERE). The relationship between Deer and the GMC hearing remains troubling as the prosecution has been constructed on documents described by the journalist as “not public domain”, and without any public explanation of how they were originally obtained. Harris accompanied Deer to the first day of the proceedings in July 2007 and was also present at “the findings on fact” in January (HERE). These “facts” closely resemble the early allegations of Deer and Harris (HERE and HERE).
There are many questions here. When last year a radio journalist, Jeni Barnett, dared to criticise the defensive culture surrounding MMR vaccine she was censured by a large group of MP’s of which Harris was inevitably one of the leaders (HERE). This was an offensive episode in which a journalist who dared to open her mouth about the authoritarian nature of public health policy was bullied into silence, and it could not really have proved her point better. It really is time that Harris explained his role in the MMR business altogether. But it is also absolutely essential that all politicians understand that leaking our private documents for politically expedient ends is simply disgusting and unacceptable.
John Stone is UK Contributing Editor for Age of Autism.