Monday, January 10, 2011

The MMR Vaccine, Autism, Andrew Wakefield and Lawyers Too

Andrew Wakefield

According to a recent report in the British Medical Journal the study published in the Lancet in 1998 (led by Dr Andrew Wakefield) was declared as being a fraud. The press will be full of stories relating to the MMR/Autism scandal. I wanted to highlight the facts behind the case and talk about the critical role that Lawyers greed played in the whole scandal. Their disgraceful role in the affair has not received enough attention.

There has not been a single scientific study that links the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism. In addition, there has not even been any scientific evidence to link thiomersal with autism. Thiomersal is referenced because it contains trace elements of mercury and was formerly posited as being responsible for the rise in autism. These suppositions have, thus far, proved to be without foundation.

So why do people persist in believing that there is a link? Whatever the reason, it does not lay in science.

The Scientific Evidence for Link between MMR and Autism?

Here is a list of medical bodies that have found no casual link between MMR and autism/thiomersal
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • The National Health Service in the UK (NHS)
  • Institute of Medicine (IOM)
  • World Health Organisation (WHO)
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
  • New Scientist Magazine
According to the FDA’s "Thiomersal in Vaccines,” the IOM's Immunization Safety Review Committee concluded in 2004 that the:
... evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism.. ...the committee stated that the benefits of vaccination are proven and the hypothesis of susceptible populations is presently speculative, and that widespread rejection of vaccines would lead to increases in incidences of serious infectious diseases.

The Origins of the MMR and Autism Controversy

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a former surgeon, published a paper in The Lancet. The paper suggested that the connection between gastrointestinal pathologies and autism was real, but stopped short of arguing that it proved an association between the MMR vaccine and autism.

The report outlined that the parents of eight (of the 12 children with developmental disorders) had blamed the MMR vaccine. Furthermore, Wakefield argued that it was a better solution to use single vaccines instead of the MMR triple vaccine until a casual relationship could be ruled out.

General Medical Council Ruling on Andrew Wakefield

It was later discovered that Wakefield had been receiving monies from solicitors working on a class action against MMR manufacturers. Furthermore, Wakefield had registered a patent for a single measles vaccine, which would have benefited substantially if his advice against the triple vaccine MMR had been followed.

In 2010, the General Medical Council gave their verdict on a disciplinary hearing for Andrew Wakefield. He was branded a dishonest and irresponsible doctor whose work had been thoroughly discredited. The Lancet had previously retracted the published paper and Wakefield’s research had been thoroughly exposed by investigative journalist Brian Deer.

The Consequences of the MMR Scandal

The repercussions of Wakefield’s dishonesty cannot be understated. MMR vaccinations fell after his "research" received substantive media attention. His work was ceased upon and endorsed by celebrities who promulgated the case without scientific to support them. As a consequence, many children did not receive vaccinations.

Furthermore, according to Deer, Wakefield received over £400k in personal payments from solicitors (who obtained the money from public funds) to conduct the research, and also received £55k in public funding for the research work itself, but it didn’t stop there.

The Solicitor who approached Wakefield was Richard Barr, and their double-act of solicitor & lawyer proved highly lucrative for the professionals that worked for them. According to Deer
This start-up funding was part of a staggering £18m of taxpayers' money eventually shared among a group of doctors and lawyers, working under Barr's and Wakefield's direction, to try to prove that MMR caused the previously unheard-of 'syndrome.'

Similarly, according to Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, lawyers failed to act after O’Leary’s findings (outlining how the measles virus had been detected in gut biopsies of children with autism and gastro-intestinal disturbances) had been discredited:
When the lawyers at the Legal Services Commission discovered this authoritative investigation concluding that O’Leary’s findings were unreliable they realised that, putting this together with the wider evidence against the MMR-autism thesis, the litigation had no chance.. ...the lawyers leading the campaign refused to acknowledge openly that the scientific case against the MMR-autism link was overwhelming and advise their clients to conclude the action.

In fact, the lawyers pursued the case for a further three years. The ultimate result being that he lawyers and solicitors working on this hopeless case earned £9.7m from these actions.

The Reasons behind the MMR and Autism Scandal

I think the primary cause behind Wakefield's actions is the greed and impunity-free opportunism of the legal sector. They received public funding in order to pursue a case which never had a shred of evidence, and they probably knew it. The secondary cause is the desire of the media and public to latch onto a story that has the classic (but unfounded) ingredient of corporate greed at the expense of the public.

The losers in the scandal are the taxpayers and the parents of children who did not receive necessary vaccinations. The winners are the lawyers and Wakefield. Although thoroughly discredited, I believe he makes a good living in the USA.

The lessons to be learned relate to the conduct of the legal sector and, the wilful and sensationalist seeking negligence of certain parts of the media industry.


CDC Press Release

Bloomberg Website “Lancet Study Tying Childhood Vaccine to Autism was ‘Fraud’, Report Says”  Accessed Jan 10, 2011

Deer, Brian ‘Nailed: Dr Andrew Wakefield and the MMR - autism fraud’

FDA ‘Thiomersal in Vaccines’ , FDA Website

Fitzpatrick, Dr Michael ‘The MMR-autism theory? There’s nothing in it’

World Health Organisation ‘Thiomersal and vaccines: questions and answers’ WHO website

New Scientist ‘MMR and autism not linked,finds Giant Study’

NHS ‘MMR The Facts’ NHS Immunisation Information, 2004

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