Wow. If the allegations referred to in this British Medical Journal editorial are true -- that scientist Andrew Wakefield, who was being paid by law firms who wanted to sue vaccine companies, deliberately manufactured data linking vaccines to autism -- then Wakefield has blood on his hands.
Count me in among the mothers who (back in 2000 when my first child was born) chose to vaccinate on a delayed and modified schedule in part because of the doubts engendered by reports like Wakefield's 1998 paper in the respected British journal Lancet.
It has been suggested for a long time that the preponderance of the evidence since Wakefield's report tended to refute the alleged vaccine-autism connection, and I had come to believe that it was in error -- one of those common dead-end pathways in scientific research. Eventually, the paper was even retracted, as does happen sometimes when there prove to be mistakes. I no longer had a concern about vaccines and autism specifically. I hadn't been following the story closely since then, and so I wasn't expecting a finding of fraud.
Full disclosure: I'm still unhappy with vaccines that have a fetal-tissue connection. I still prefer to give kids one vaccine at a time the first time they get one, so that the cause of any reaction can be known. I'm supportive of religious- and philosophical-exemption laws. And I am aware of the concerns about vaccine reactions of other kinds, and am understanding of the nervousness with which many parents approach them, as well as being generally sympathetic with a low-medical-intervention and individual- rather than population-focused medicine.
But this? Outright falsification of medical data that affected vaccination decisions (and possibly disease outbreaks) in several countries, as well as influencing the direction of autism research?
I can't figure out whether I'm outraged more as a mother or as a scientist.
(Knowing me, probably as a scientist.)
Mainstream-type folks often like to characterize alternative-type folks as crackpots. Homeschoolers know this. Home-birth mamas know this. Mothers who practice extended breastfeeding know this. Consumers of alternative medicine of all kinds know this. People who source some of their food outside the mainstream production/processing industry know this. Hey, religious people know this. It's annoying to see experts whose knowledgeable advice you rely on, referred to as crackpots, or evil.
It's even more annoying when some of the "experts" DO turn out to be crackpots, or evil, or both.
Chemistry blogger Derek Lowe weighs in:
The 1998 paper that linked MMR vaccination with autism has had a long way to fall. It made, of course, a huge media sensation, and energized the whole vaccination/autism controversy that still (in spite of evidence) goes on. But it didn't look very robust from the start, scientifically. And over the years it's gone from "Really needs shoring up" to "hasn't been reproduced" to "looks like there's something wrong with it" to "main conclusions retracted" to the final, lowest level: outright fraud.
Here's a good history of the whole affair in the BMJ. And here's the first part of a series of articles by Brian Deer, the journalist who dug into the study and found how fraudulent it really was. Not one of the 12 cases in Wakefield's original study hold up; the data were manipulated in every single one to make it fit his hypothesis. His hypothesis that he was getting grant money for. His hypothesis that he was already planning lawsuits around, before the study even started.
His hypothesis, I might add, that has led to completely unnecessary suffering among the unvaccinated children this scare has produced over the years, and has diverted enormous amounts of time, energy, and money away from useful study of autism. This sort of deliberate action is really hard to contemplate, as a reasonable human being - it's like some sort of massive campaign to persuade people to throw bricks through the windows of ambulances.
In a better world, we'd be getting expressions of sorrow and contrition from all the celebrities and others who've profited from this business. But that's not going to happen, is it?
Don't hold your breath.