Weekly Wrap: No, Senator Feinstein, Wakefield is Not a Fraud
The idea that Andy Wakefield is a fraud is the quick-and-dirty way to dismiss anyone with vaccine safety concerns. I was reminded of that on a couple of fronts this week. An Age of Autism reader who wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California to support vaccine choice just received this reply:
“I understand that many parents are also concerned that vaccines may cause autism. This claim was published in 1998, in an article in the Lancet, a British medical journal. The researcher who authored the article was later found to have deliberately falsified data to produce a fraudulent link ..."
The source of the "fraud" claim, the British Medical Journal, decided to remind everyone of that 2012 report this week. In a "Dear Colleagues" letter, BMJ Clinical Director for North America Carolyn Wong Simpkins wrote that in the current measles outbreak, "we are seeing the sad consequences of parents opting out of these [vaccine] benefits. But do you remember the origins of the rumors attempting to connect the MMR vaccine with autism? It began with a research paper—later retracted—from investigators at a London medical school, but soon spread fear, guilt, and now the resurgence of a nearly eradicated infectious disease across the globe.
"In 2011, The BMJ published an in-depth, three-part investigation that described the problems with data corruption and bias in the original paper. As we move forward, and encourage parents to vaccinate their children, I think it’s important to revisit this history and remember the detrimental effects that fraudulent data can have on the health of the global population, and the importance of championing transparency, integrity, and scientific literacy."
May I be permitted to interject a minor quibble here? There was no fraud! I first made that case in a 10-part series in 2012, and am recapitulating it here in the hope that someone of Feinstein's stature might decide to look more closely before they repeat the "fraud" canard yet again.
The BMJ began its 2011 attack on Wakefield's "elaborate fraud" by claiming he altered every single one of 12 children's anonymous case histories to create a phony link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In five cases, it said, signs of autism actually began before the shot was even given.
If true, yep, that's "deliberately falsified data ... a fraudulent link" -- in a word, good old-fashioned fraud. But let's meet the claim at its strongest point and see if it holds together. That is the story of Child 11 in the case series. In the BMJ, author Brian Deer claimed Child 11's symptoms couldn't possibly have been caused by the MMR shot because they appeared “too soon” -- a full two months before the shot. Deer said the father himself spotted the "anomaly" and was deeply upset about Wakefield's deception. Wow. Gotcha! An "elaborate fraud" indeed.
But none of that is true.
Like Deer, I was able to identify the 12 Lancet families, and I set about contacting them in the months after the BMJ series was published; I eventually spoke to more of them than Deer did both in the U.S. and England, where I spent a week taking trains from Wales to Bath. I met Father 11 -- the only American case -- closest to home, at a Peet’s Coffee shop in an affluent, picture-perfect Southern California enclave.
We sat outside in the mid-60s sunshine he jokingly called “a little frosty.” A wealthy businessman who lives in a gated community nearby, he wore a light jacket emblazoned with “Cal,” for the University of California at Berkeley where he got an engineering degree. He carried a thin file folder and a spiral notebook.
In this laid-back setting, it was hard to grasp the role he and his family have played in one of the major medical controversies of our time, one that unfolded in a foggy city 6,000 miles to the east.
This father is Deer’s best witness among the parents of the 12 children described in the Lancet paper – in fact, his only one, the lone parent who is hostile to Wakefield, not just a little frosty, but coldly angry. His anonymous comments to Deer in the BMJ seemed to fully support its January 5, 2011, cover story: “Secrets of the MMR Scare: How the Case Against the MMR Was Fixed.”
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