Dr Andrew Wakefield On MMR Vaccine In Sunday Express
12 October 2008
Hollywood takes on the MMR jab
By Lucy Johnston
As celebrities voice their concerns about the triple vaccine and measles outbreaks continue to plague Britain, Health Editor, LUCY JOHNSTON speaks exclusively to Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who started the debate
When Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong, and actress Jenny McCarthy hosted a fundraising gala in California recently for families convinced that MMR caused autism in their children, a debate that has never really gone away was thrown to the fore once more.
The star-studded event in aid of Ante Up For Autism, highlighted the fact that the controversy surrounding the triple vaccine is now becoming a celebrity issue.
Meanwhile, in Britain, last week saw the 20th anniversary of the controversial triple jab.
High profile critics of MMR now include actor Jim Carrey, his girlfriend Jenny McCarthy, and the all-girl rock group the Dixie Chicks.
McCarthy and Carrey were recently given an hour on the Oprah Winfrey Show to promote her new best-selling book, Mother Warriors, which maintains that vaccines can trigger autism in infants. She says her 6-year-old son Evan developed the symptoms following his triple jab.
"After the MMR Evan started having seizures," she said. "After I treated his medical issues, which the medical establishment continues to ignore, my son recovered from autism and he is not the only one. I talked to 60,000 mothers and kept hearing the same story.
"Vaccines are safe for some children and not for others. We want to reduce the number of vaccines. We want the toxic ingredients removed and independent safety studies carried out.
Few parents questioned the use of the combined vaccine when it was introduced into the UK in October 1988. However things changed irrevocably in 1998 when Dr Andrew Wakefield, then a gut specialist at London's Royal Free Hospital published an explosive article in The Lancet linking autism with MMR.
The medical establishment and government turned on Dr Wakefield. He was forced out of his job and has been blamed for the significant drop in uptake of MMR, leading to fears over the widespread return of the diseases the jab is designed to protect against.
Last week, a Health Protection Agency spokesman pleaded with parents to give their children the MMR, pointing to new figures that revealed an increase of 231 cases of measles from 2006 -2007, bringing the total number to 971. Overall vaccination rates are currently running at 85 per cent across the country but some areas such as London have rates as low as 49 per cent.
Wakefield, a father of four, is now based in Texas, where he operates a charity-run clinic called Thoughtful House for treatment of and research into autism. About 2,000 autistic children are being treated. Dr Wakefield and two other colleagues, Professor Simon Murch and Professor John Walker-Smith, are currently awaiting a decision from the General Medical Council about whether the research they conducted in the UK breached ethical codes.
In a rare and exclusive interview with the Sunday Express Dr Wakefield defended himself against critics and denied he was "courting celebrities" to promote his theory.
"I have only met Jenny McCarthy a couple of times. I have never tried to influence her," he said. "She has her own story to tell about how she blames the vaccine for her son's autism. Her story is so similar to that of many other mothers who say their children were developing normally until they had the MMR jab between 12- and 18-months, when they developed a form of regressive autism. She is an important voice and I have tremendous respect for her courage in speaking out."
Dr Wakefield and his team identified a bowel disorder that causes "leaky guts". He theorised that the virus damages the gut, leading to inflammation and secondary injury to the developing brain. He believes this syndrome, unique to some autistic children, could be caused by the triple jab after studies found the measles part of the vaccine virus present in the gut.
His critics pronounce him a maverick but his work has since been replicated by other studies from Italy, South America and various centers in the US.
American researchers revealed in 2006 that 85 per cent of samples taken from 82 autistic children contained the vaccine strain of the measles virus.
Recently the former head of the National Institute of Health in the US and the head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have acknowledged that poor study design may have led to underestimation of the risk of autism following vaccines.
Wakefield said no parent of the children treated at the Royal Free or at Thoughtful House had ever complained about his work and that his aim was to make sure the children's problems are recognised and treated appropriately.
"My sole purpose is to help these children and get to grips with the root of the problem, which is what I am doing," he said. "Despite having discovered an apparently new disease my colleagues and I are being vilified purely because of the vaccine association. This link has threatened Government policy and drug-company profit. What we're witnessing over the triple jab is a propaganda campaign based on who has the biggest budget. I have none while the budget of the UK Government and its allies is limitless."
Dr Wakefield, who is to publish a book, The Lesser Truth, on his experiences over the controversy next year, added: "Unfortunately much of Britain's media has bought into this propaganda lock, stock and barrel. Without the manpower or financial back up, I have waited, watched and just got on with my work. Now the time has come to tell the story."
He cites parallels between his story and that of Dr. William McBride, the Australian gynaecologist who first alerted the world to the danger of thalidomide, the morning sickness drug that caused widespread foetal malformation, in 1961 in a letter to The Lancet. Drug manufacturers and European governments resisted the withdrawal of thalidomide until the weight of evidence and media pressure was overwhelming.
Do government's still conceal evidence and cover up?
The Sunday Express has discovered evidence that health officials failed to warn of serious risks linked with the MMR jab before it was introduced.
According to a secret dossier, five cases were reported of potentially deadly brain inflammation following the use of MMR in Canada before it became part of standard childhood vaccinations in Britain.
The internal documents from the Government's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation meeting also reveal reports that another brand of MMR had caused "neurological complications" from the measles component of the vaccine in the US. The minutes of the committee on vaccination meeting in 1988, released under the Freedom of Information Act, blame the mumps component of the vaccine, called Urabe, for five cases of brain inflammation.
Despite this, from 1988 these brands were administered routinely without any warning of serious risk until the two brands that contained the Urabe mumps strain were withdrawn four years later because of health fears.
Some children died or were seriously brain damaged by this vaccine. One of these was Hannah Buxton, who was 18 months old when she reacted to her first MMR jab given in the first week of the new campaign. She started having fits and died 18 months later in February 1992.
Parents Carol and Tony of Towcester, Northants, did not know Hannah had been given the strain of vaccine later withdrawn after it was deemed unsafe. In March 1992 a Government tribunal blamed the vaccine for her death and the family was awarded a vaccine damage payment.
Dr Peter Fletcher, former Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Health, is also sceptical about the Government's position and the safety of the triple jab.
In a previous interview he said: "The refusal by governments to evaluate the risks properly will make this one of the greatest scandals in medical history. There are very powerful people in positions of great authority who have staked their reputations on the safety of MMR and they are willing to do almost anything to protect themselves."
Wakefield does not claim he is right about the link with autism but he believes it needs investigating, not ridiculing. In the meantime he says the Government should offer parents the choice of single vaccines. He has, he says, privately asked vaccine policy makers why this is not happening and been told that "offering single jabs would destroy the triple jab programme."
This, he feels is not good enough. "The first priority should be to protect children from infection with safe vaccines. A cloud of doubt has been cast over the safety of MMR and parents should have a choice."
However, parents looking for this choice are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain single jabs with the handful of private clinics offering them often running out of supplies.
The Department of Health insists the vaccine is safe. A spokesperson said: "We believe that the vaccine has an excellent safety record and studies have confirmed this. Neither population-based studies or studies in individual children have confirmed a link between MMR vaccine and autism."
However, with Hollywood's renewed interest it seems this important debate has moved ever further from a resolution.
The double feature in the Sunday Express included pictures of Dr Andrew Wakefield and his wife Carmel in front of the GMC buildings with supporters.
A larger picture with the inscription ON THE ATTACK: actor Jim Carrey carries his partner Jenny McCarthy's son Evan as the couple take part in a Washington rally in June aiming to eliminate toxins from children's vaccines.
Below, cycle ace Lance Armstrong, pictured with son Luke, opposes the MMR vaccine.