Harris, Evan

The Vaccine Safety Myth: Dr Evan Harris Fails to Address the Questions

By John Stone


In the aftermath of the Fletcher vaccine damage award case, former Liberal-Democrat MP and ‘science’ lobbyist Dr Evan Harris mounted a defence of MMR vaccine in a Guardian ‘political science’ blog (HERE),  leaving all the usual questions unanswered, both the manifold questions about vaccine safety and policy, and his own role in its defence including such issues as

- his bureaucratic fall-back position on vaccine damage ignoring legitimate parent concerns

- how he helped precipitate the Wakefield affair but has failed to defend key points of GMC’s decision

- his defence of controversial  proponents of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy diagnosis Drs Meadow and Southall

- the apparent preparedness of the British medical and legal establishment to see innocent parents go to jail rather than ever admit the involvement of vaccine in infant death
Harris returned once a few hours after the blog’s commencement with a few significantly dismissive remarks but has failed to respond again as the criticisms have stacked up in the following two weeks.

Most illuminating was Harris’s  endorsement with one commenter’s exposition of the bureaucratic position of UK health officials (HERE & HERE ). ‘Matstuff’ had said:
“Re “parents reporting vaccine damage” They can't report 'vaccine damage' though. They can report that their child became ill shortly after the administration of a vaccine, but that's not proof of an interaction between the vaccine and the development of the illness.”
I had responded originally to this with the comment (HERE ):

“Vaccines are not inherently safe and they are not very well tested, as Cochrane points out. What actually happens in the real world is that even serious adverse effects are neither recorded or monitored, and nor are their sequelae - and the failure to monitor, listen, record or investigate is then cited as evidence that nothing has happened. I am describing an unsafe system, but it is also against the background of a school autism rate of 1 in 64 and unprecedented levels of life-threatening allergy in the school population.”
Harris ignored this and quoted Matstuff with the approving comment: “Well put”. No need apparently to respond to anything awkward.

It should be obvious that the dispassionate scientific position here is that we should look carefully at all such cases, whereas what we actually have is a legal/bureaucratic position, with the parents ever at a disadvantage of having to prove something with the government, the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry trying to thwart and deny them at every turn. No wonder the great interests were all so angry when Andrew Wakefield, John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch of the Royal Free Hospital stepped out of line and actually listened to the parents, and investigated their children’s medical history. But why cannot parents report adverse effects from vaccines just like they might from drugs, and not expect to be treated with concern and respect?

Unsurprisingly, Harris failed to respond when I asked him about his involvement in the Wakefield affair, quoting at him his memoir in British Medical Journal (HERE ):

“In February 2004 I got a call on my mobile from a journalist at the Sunday Times saying he wanted to talk to me about the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. I said firmly that I didn’t have any concerns about MMR, I didn’t want to assist a scare story, and if I did want to talk about public health it wouldn’t be to the Sunday Times, given the paper’s record on HIV and AIDS coverage. “Too bad,” said the man. “I have an exclusive exposé about Andrew Wakefield’s undeclared conflicts of interest surrounding his original 1998 Lancet paper.” “Hang on a sec,” I said. “I’ll get Dr Harris on the line.”

“That was when I first encountered investigative journalist Brian Deer. Within a week we were in the Lancet offices explaining to a stunned editorial team what lay behind that fateful 1998 paper...

“Brian Deer had discovered that Andrew Wakefield was being paid by the legal aid board to provide an expert opinion for plaintiff lawyers in a legal suit against the manufacturers of MMR, and that at least some of the children who were claimed to be “consecutive patients referred to the paediatric GI clinic at the Royal Free” were part of the class action..”
I asked:

“I wonder if you could help me on a couple of points here. Firstly, how did Deer discover that Wakefield was involved in the action in 2003-4 when it was disclosed by Wakefield in letter to the Lancet published 2 May 1998 (and although the facts had been known to the Lancet since March 1997 when an MCA official wrote to Horton[the editor] about it)? Secondly, perhaps you can explain as a registered doctor, and at the time member of the BMA ethical committee, why it was not your greater concern that Deer had obtained confidential information about patients, including apparently their identity, rather than conjectural breaches in research ethics?”

Had I got it wrong in some way?  If so Harris did not take the opportunity to put the record straight.

Nor did he have anything to say about my exposition of the errors in the GMC’s findings in the Wakefield case(HERE ):

“There were a number of problems with the GMC decision. The most fundamental anomaly was that the panel found the doctors guilty of conducting the Legal Aid Board protocol (172-96) in the Lancet paper, instead of it being "an early report", as stated. At the same time they found the doctors guilty of breaching the terms of the LAB protocol in virtually every detail. A more likely explanation is that they simply weren't doing it, ever. In fact the biopsies were retained by Prof John Walker-Smith for research under generic ethical permission 162-95, which was granted him as the leading paediatric gastro-enterologist in the country when he joined the Royal Free in 1995. Why this great gentleman would have ordered biopsies on children without clinical need is beyond comprehension or likelihood. The GMC's decision in this respect was widely doubted by leading members of the profession: I listed references here, although the links may have changed:

“The panel was particularly misleading stating: ““The Panel has heard that ethical approval had been sought and granted for other trials and it has been specifically suggested that Project 172-96 was never undertaken and that in fact, the Lancet 12 children’s investigations were clinically indicated and the research parts of those clinically justified investigations were covered by Project 162- 95. In the light of all the available evidence, the Panel rejected this proposition.”

“However, 162-95 was not a project, and they avoided explaining that Walker-Smith had ethical dispensation by misdescribing it as one.”

But Harris, who was memorably seen trying to shout down Jim Moody outside the GMC in January  (HERE ), had nothing to say about this either.

Commenters also challenged Harris’s support for Drs Meadow and Southall both of whom were implicated in the Sally Clark case which gave us the merest glimpse of the British medical establishment at work. Clark lost two infants and was tried for murder, Meadow gave erroneous evidence about the probability of two children dying a natural death, while Southall made inappropriate allegations against the father over the death of the first. Clark went to jail but absolutely no one was told that her second child died five hours after being given 5 vaccines. Clark was ultimately cleared and released from jail but died of a broken heart. After her death Neville Hodgkinson revealed in the Spectator (HERE ):

“An examination of related legal and other correspondence has now made clear the reason for this extraordinary omission. It is that child health experts, following public loss of confidence in vaccination when the risks of brain damage were first publicised, were trying to maintain a united front in preventing further debate. Even paediatricians who gave testimony on Mrs Clark’s behalf told defence lawyers that if vaccination were mentioned as a possible cause of Harry’s death, they would dispute it. Not wanting to confuse the jury, and with judges having a history of bowing to dominant medical opinion, the defence decided to stay silent on the issue. “

The awful truth is that doctors and lawyers in the UK would rather see innocent parents go to jail than admit the vaccination programme is in any way at fault. We once had in the UK an adverse vaccine reactions committee: Meadow served on it, and so just before it was disbanded in 1991 did Harris’s father. But as I pointed out in Harris’s blog (HERE ):

“There is obviously no point in having a committee to review adverse vaccine reactions when if worst comes to worst you can just send the parents to jail.

“In this country, unreported in the mainstream media, the GMC will discipline doctors giving scientific evidence which is perfectly acceptable in US courts:

“This is the culture. You wonder how Evan Harris, as a liberal and a democrat, can justify it.”

John Stone is UK Editor for Age of Autism.