by Brian Deer
In 1996 I was commissioned to write a book about the Internet. It was to explain it to people who didn't know anything about it or the technology behind it or what it could be good and bad for. There was some hysteria about the possibility of a flood of pornography filling our lounge rooms so I actually had to research porn (it was boring!) to answer the inevitable questions in interviews. I also looked for other forms of bad information, because it was obvious even then that there would be dubious information coming down the tubes. One of the bad things I found was a group of web sites spreading fear about vaccinations. I commented at the time that none of the pornography I was forced to watch was as offensive as some of these sites.
In 1999 I started paying more attention to the anti-vaccination sites and it wasn't long before I was sneeringly told that a paper by a Dr Andrew Wakefield had been published in The Lancet (the world's second-most prestigious and influential medical journal) which proved that the MMR vaccine caused autism. As I had experience of people citing unlikely research results in the hope that nobody would check, I read the paper for myself (I had access to the medical library at Westmead Hospital) and it proved no such thing – it only suggested there might be a link. There were several red flags on the paper, one of which was that the editors of The Lancet felt the need to include an editorial statement implying the clichés "further research is needed" and "the science is not settled".
The biggest red flag for me came from something I had been taught about research methodology at university – the sample of subjects looked too good to be true. It seemed highly unlikely that the parents of the children had independently and randomly sought out a doctor (who didn't see patients!) at a small and relatively unknown London hospital. I mentioned my concerns in a conference presentation in 2001. The most charitable view was that there had been some cherry-picking going on mixed with some confirmation bias. The peer review process can't always detect outright fraud, so this was a case of "the benefit of the doubt".
But fraud it certainly was.
Journalist Brian Deer had been investigating suspicious matters around the pharmaceutical industry for some years, and in 2003 he was approached by an editor at the Sunday Times and asked to apply his investigative skills to the Wakefield story, which by then had started to have a serious effect on vaccination levels and public health. There was enough information and doubt from within the medical profession itself to suggest that the public didn't know all the things it should have known, and it wasn't long before the facts started coming out – that Wakefield was paid a large amount of money to find what he wanted to find, that he had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine that would have made him very wealthy if it replaced the current vaccine, that the subjects of the study had not been randomly chosen but had been supplied by a lawyer, Roger Barr, who intended taking legal action against vaccine manufacturers, that Barr had used a loophole in the regulations to stripmine the Legal Aid system for tens of millions of pounds (shared with Wakefield), that Wakefield and Barr both had close associations with prominent anti-vaccination campaigners, that the laboratory doing the tests for measles DNA had less credibility than a school science project, … . The list went on.
In 2010 Wakefield's registration as a medical practitioner was cancelled and The Lancet retracted the 1998 paper. It took too many years, but we thought that at last it might all be over. We were wrong.
Brian Deer (described as "a lying dog of a journalist" by a leading anti-vaccination campaigner) has now written a complete history of the Wakefield saga. The book goes back some years before the notorious 1998 paper to reveal the involvement of lawyer Barr and vociferous anti-vaccination organisations, through the almost unbelievable litany of lies, corruption and fraud that surrounded Wakefield and the coordinated attempts to use his fraudulent "research" to damage the public's perception of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, to his elevation to hero status in the anti-vaccination movement and his current incarnation as the director and producer of anti-vaccination films liked the execrable Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. (The use of the word "cover-up" in the title caused irony meters across the world to shatter, given the way that Wakefield et al had covered up his deceit. Also, when the film first came out in 2016 someone commented about the propaganda: "Leni Riefenstahl would have baulked at making something this dishonest".)
I could summarise the book into something like those old Reader's Digest condensed novels but I wouldn't know what to leave out and this review would be about 300 pages long. The book is an essential read for anyone who has followed Wakefield over the years (and even someone who has followed him as closely as I have found many new things to wonder and grimace at), it is essential reading for anyone who thinks that scientific and medical research can't be corrupted by greed and self-interest or to support an agenda, it is essential reading for anyone who thinks for a nanosecond that the anti-vaccination movement is based on any philosophy that includes honesty, ethics or morality. Strangely, the book also reinforces the claim by anti-vaccinators that all medical research is corrupt and driven by money, although they will make an exception in this case.
You need this book. Buy it! Highly recommended.