The smearing of Andrew Wakefield
By Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail, 23 February 2004
From the moment that surgeon Andrew Wakefield first published his explosive
theory suggesting a link between autism, bowel disease and the measles,
mumps and rubella triple jab, the government and the medical establishment
have been determined to discredit him and thus destroy his research.
Over the weekend, it looked as if they had finally managed it. The Sunday
Times suggested that Mr Wakefield's original Lancet paper in 1998, which
first indicated such links, was a scandalous manipulation of the evidence.
The report claimed Mr Wakefield had failed to tell the Lancet he had also
received legal aid funds to carry out a separate study, as part of the
legal case being brought by parents of autistic children against the MMR
manufacturers. To make matters even worse, it alleged, some of the children
in the Lancet paper were involved in the court case. The Lancet study was
therefore fatally compromised, since the parents had stood to gain
financially if Mr Wakefield's researches had enabled them to claim
No sooner did the story appear than the Health Secretary Dr John Reid
demanded an urgent inquiry. However, upon examination the picture
significantly changes. The Sunday Times originally made a series of claims
against Mr Wakefield, which were all actually rejected by the Lancet except
for the conflict of interest. But when one looks at the facts, this too
begins to look a bit different.
Mr Wakefield's legal aid-funded study was commissioned by solicitor Richard
Barr, who had been approached by parents of children sick with autism and
bowel disease who wanted to take legal action against the manufacturers of
MMR. Mr Barr wanted to know whether there was clinical evidence to support
such a case. So he asked Mr Wakefield to look at possible links between
measles virus and bowel disease.
The Sunday Times report claimed that four or five of the 12 children in the
entirely separate Lancet study were part of this legal action. But their
parents only decided to go to court after they had been accepted for
treatment by Mr Wakefield's team at London's Royal Free hospital.
The implication that they were selected because they were litigants with a
financial interest in the results of the clinical examination is grotesque.
All twelve of them were referred through normal NHS processes, either from
doctors' recommendations or after desperate parents, having heard on the
grapevine of Mr Wakefield's unusual sympathy towards these problems, had
contacted him of their own volition. It was only subsequently that a few of
them became part of the legal case.
So the two Wakefield studies were entirely separate, with no cross over.
True, the Lancet editor has said the second study should have been
disclosed to avoid the 'perception' of a conflict of interest, and that had
he known of its existence, he wouldn't have published Mr Wakefield's paper
which was 'fatally flawed' as a result.
But surely Mr Wakefield is being accused of a conflict of interest which
did not occur at the time, in order to create the false impression that he
and his colleagues deliberately skewed their selection of children for
investigation in the Lancet exercise to support a crack-brained theory.
Surely, he is being damned by the misleading application of hindsight,
which has seriously misrepresented what happened. In other words, this
appears to be nothing other than a smear.
It is also a smear whose timing should raise a few eyebrows. For the Legal
Services Commission has now cut off legal aid funding for the parents,
which threatens to stop the case altogether. It just so happened that Mr
Barr applied for judicial review of that decision a week ago, and judgment
has been reserved. So this smear looks very like an attempt to influence
the court and ensure the case dies.
And make no mistake, the stakes could not be higher. The drug companies,
the government and the medical establishment have every reason to fear this
case going ahead.
For although Mr Wakefield is the focus of the frenzy, many other pieces of
evidence suggest that concern over the vaccine is by no means confined to
one possibly obsessive doctor. Although the vast majority of children
clearly have no adverse reaction whatever from the MMR jab, the number of
families with a very different story to tell indicate that, for a small
proportion of children, something worrying may be happening.
What is so striking is the sheer volume of parents, not just in Britain but
in America and other countries, who tell the same story of children who
were developing normally - often with videos to prove it - only to stop
developing and start suffering bowel disease after the MMR jab.
Moreover, vaccine-strain measles virus has been found in the gut of some
children with autism and bowel disease. Earlier this month Dr Jeff
Bradstreet, a US autism researcher, presented evidence to the Institute of
Medicine in Washington showing measles virus in the cerebral-spinal fluid
of three children with autism and bowel disease.
This virus most definitely should not be there; and the question is how it
got there in children who had been vaccinated against measles. None of this
proves MMR causes either bowel disease or autism; but it certainly
indicates a cause for concern.
The government insists, however, that research overwhelmingly shows the
vaccine is safe. But this is not so. The research in question investigates
patterns of disease based on medical records. But this is unlikely to get
to the bottom of the issue, since countless parents have said doctors not
only failed to diagnose autism or bowel disease in their children but
dismissed out of hand the parents' reports that the problems seemed to
start with the triple jab.
In any event, these studies do not prove MMR is safe. They say there is no
proof it is not safe, a very different matter. The official
misrepresentation of these conclusions is one of the most worrying things
about this controversy. This is particularly so since the government had
introduced the first type of MMR vaccine in 1989 - which it had to withdraw
three years later because it was shown to cause aseptic meningitis - even
though it knew at the time that Canada had already withdrawn it because it
was found to be unsafe.
And as for conflicts of interest, what about the many scientists on the
government's vaccine safety bodies who are funded by the pharmaceutical
Certainly, it is extremely worrying if parents are refusing to vaccinate
their children against measles, mumps and rubella, with the dangers they
pose of serious illness or even death. But not only does the government
refuse to allow the use of less worrying single jabs - it also refuses to
do the one thing that could settle this matter one way or the other.
Instead of calling for an inquiry into Mr Wakefield and dismissing parents'
concerns with such contempt, it should commission an independent, clinical
investigation of affected children. Only then will we be able to judge who
in this wretched story is actually right, and only then will all children
get the vaccinations they need.