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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Autism, Vaccines, and the Wakefield Study: II. The Apparent Motives

In my last post, I described some important reasons for the rejection of Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 paper that claimed a causal link between the MMR vaccine, the development of autism in young children, and gastrointestinal disease. Information about those reasons came from a remarkable investigation by the British reporter Brian Deer and was published on Jan. 5, 2011, in the British Medical Journal.

Deer also looked into the motives that seem to have been behind Wakefield’s publication of distorted data, and published a discussion of these in the British Medical Journal on Jan 12 (“How the vaccine crisis was meant to make money”). I’ll summarize some of the points Deer described, but this is a long story, and I would strongly recommend that interested readers read the BMJ article for all the disturbing details.

Before the study even began, Wakefield had patented a test for measles virus in bowel tissue and products. Claiming that certain bowel diseases could be diagnosed by detection of measles virus, Wakefield proposed starting a company that would manufacture testing materials and calculated that such materials would bring in over 70 million pounds a year from Britain and America. This income would depend in part on government health administrations and on governmental legal aid funds for patients suffering from bowel diseases. This business proposal was followed by a patent for a single measles vaccine (rather than the usual combination of measles, mumps,and rubella) and the suggestion that there was a connection between measles vaccine, bowel disease, and autism-- a posited syndrome Wakefield called “autistic enterocolitis”. Among the participants in the ensuing business plan were Wakefield, a venture capitalist, and the father of one of the children in the 1998 Lancet study. Also involved was an entity called Freemedic, the commercial section of the merged Royal Free Hospital and the University College (London) Medical School, which later resisted strongly Brian Deer’s attempts to untangle these matters.

Wakefield’s plan thus appears to have been that he and a few others would reap enormous financial benefits from his patented tests and vaccines, and that much of their income would be derived from litigation by parents of sick children. This did not happen, and in fact neither the test nor the measles vaccine had their efficacy demonstrated by later research. (Although Wakefield was directed by his superior to do a controlled study to replicate his research claims, he did not do so.)

What did happen, instead, was that parents became frightened of vaccination and began to resist conventional medical advice about protection from contagious disease. Immunization rates in Britain and other countries dropped and there was an increase in the occurrence of diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and pertussis, which had been almost non-existent in industrialized countries for some years.

In addition, we have seen the growth of an anti-vaccination community devoted to Wakefield’s cause, and so determined that they must oppose vaccination that they have made serious threats and filed lawsuits against respected vaccine researchers like Paul Offit. My crystal ball tells me that these people will consider Brian Deer’s meticulous investigation to be a pack of lies, like all the other “lies” told about vaccination. In that, they will be very little different from the people who opposed smallpox vaccination over a hundred years ago and suggested that since the smallpox vaccine was derived from cows (vaca, that is), vaccinated individuals would take on cow-like characteristics.

So, those were the real results of Wakefield’s efforts. Wakefield and his friends are disgraced in the eyes of all but the anti-vax crowd, who undoubtedly regard them as martyrs. Children got sick, and sometimes very sick, when they did not need to. And what was it all about? Money, folks, lots of money--- money out of your pocket and mine.

And what about autism? Well, here’s how it is. If your child is vaccinated against common childhood diseases, he or she may become autistic. If your child is not vaccinated, he or she may still become autistic , and he or she may also catch a contagious disease, and as a result of that disease there will be a small but real chance that he or she may die, lose hearing, become mentally retarded, or suffer a number of other lifelong handicaps.

With stakes like that, will you let your decision be dictated by an offshoot of venture capitalism?

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