Vaccination debateMeasles outbreak raises questions about vaccination exemptions

Published 5 February 2015

The recent measles outbreak has, again, brought to the surface an issue which refuses to go away: the alleged connection between vaccination and autism. The qualifier “alleged” should not, in truth, be used — “discredited alleged” should be used instead — because science has conclusively and indisputably shown that there is no such connection. Still, in what the Wall Street Journal calls “The not-so-great measles vaccine debate of 2015,” lawmakers, healthcare officials, and parent groups are again debating whether states should make it easier or more difficult for parents to exempt their children from vaccination.

The recent measles outbreak has, again, forced to the surface an issue which refuses to go away: the alleged connection between vaccination and autism. The qualifier “alleged” should not, in truth, be used — “discredited alleged” should be used instead — because science has conclusively and indisputably shown that there is no such connection.

The notion that vaccinating children makes them more susceptible to autism gained credence in 1998, when a British physician, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published an article in the respected medical journal The Lancet in which he claimed to have found a link between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

Wakefield’s article raised a storm – until it was found to be fraudulent. He wrote it for a simple reason: money. He was on the payroll of the plaintiff bar, and trial lawyers were hoping to use his “findings” to win millions for parents of autistic children – and hefty fees for themselves and Dr. Wakefield. He had also planned to launch a company which would perform “tests” which would “prove” that autistic children became autistic as  result of vaccination.

Real scientists examined Wakefield’s concocted “evidence” and found it to be a fake. In 2010 The Lancet withdrew the article and Wakefield lost his medical license.

Wakefield’s fraud
Wakefield’s assertions about the connection between MMR vaccine and autism ran into problems shortly after the publication in The Lancet, when other researchers could not reproduce his findings or confirm his hypothesis.

Six years later, in 2004, a Sunday Times investigation found that Wakefield did not disclose to his co-authors or to The Lancet a financial conflict of interest relating to his research: Wakefield had planned to launch a new business venture which would exploit the MMR vaccination scare created by his article. The venture would profit from medical tests, which his new company would offer, and “litigation driven testing,” which his company would perform.

In the wake of the Times’s revelations, Wakefield co-authors withdrew their support for the study’s interpretations.

Wakefield’s problems were only beginning. The British General Medical Council (GMC) launched an investigation into how Wakefield and two of his former colleagues mistreated children with autism by subjecting them to unnecessary invasive medical procedures without the required ethical approval from an institutional review board.

On 28 January 2010, the GMC’s investigative panel found that nearly forty misconduct charges against Wakefield were proven, including twelve counts involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children. The GMC panel ruled that Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”; that he acted against the interests of his patients; and that he had conducted himself “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his published research.

Acting on the GMC’s findings, The Lancet immediately and fully retracted Wakefield’s 1998 article, explaining in an editorial that elements of the manuscript had been falsified. Richard Horton, The Lancet’s editor-in-chief, said Wakefield’s paper was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived.”

In May 2010 the GMC struck Wakefield off the Medical Register, explaining that Wakefield had employed deliberate falsification in The Lancet research. The GMC barred Wakefield from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom.

In January 2011, an editorial in BMJ, the British Medical Journal, referring to an article in the same issue of BMJ by Brian Deer — the investigative reporter who wrote the 2004 Sunday Times report — explained that Wakefield’s work was an “elaborate fraud.”

In the following issue of BMJ, Deer laid out Wakefield’s elaborate two-step hoax: the first step was to create an MMR vaccination scare by publishing fake “research” results which would show a connection between vaccination and susceptibility to autism; the second step was to create a medical testing company which would benefit from this artificially created scare (see Brian Deer, “How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money,” BMJ [11 January 2011]).

In November 2011 BMJ published another article by Deer showing that Wakefield made false claims not only about the connection between MMR vaccination and autism, but also about the connection between MMR vaccination and bowel disease (see Brian Deer, “More Secrets of the MMR Scare: Pathology reports solve ‘new bowel disease’ riddle,” BMJ [9 November 2011]).

2015 MMR vaccine debate
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Web site of the American Academy of Pediatrics offers a list of more than forty scientific studies which thoroughly refute Wakefield’s autism claims. “These studies do not show any link between autism and MMR vaccine, thimerosal [a preservative], multiple vaccines given at once, fevers or seizures,” the AAP pointedly concludes.

The Journal’s editorial, titled “The Weird Vaccine Panic,” chides leading Republican politicians like Senator Rand Paul (Kentucky) and Governor Chris Christie (New Jersey) for vacillating on the issue of vaccination so as not to offend vaccine-skeptics among Republican primary voters (the Journal correctly notes that right-wing GOP vaccine-skeptics share this skepticism with left-leaning organic-food-and-yoga Democrats in places like Santa Monica and Beverly Hills).

The Journal should have noted that while Paul and Christie merely vacillated on the issue of vaccination and autism, other GOP politicians, such as former Representatives Dan Burton (Indiana) and Michele Bachmann (Minnesota) have confidently asserted that the vaccination-autism connection was scientifically proven (but then, so does liberal celeb Jenny McCarthy).