In April 2004 this column profiled Dr Andrew Wakefield, whose paper in The Lancet in 1998 led directly to a reduction in the coverage of measles vaccination and the deaths of some children in the UK from a disease that hadn't killed for decades. The research supposedly revealed a link between measles virus in the gut and autism and was suspect from the start, but the truth only came out following some excellent research by a British journalist, Brian Deer. The first thing that was discovered was that the subjects in the study were not randomly selected but had been supplied to Wakefield by a firm of lawyers working on suing vaccine manufacturers and that Wakefield had been paid £55,000 by the lawyers to find what he and they wanted to find.
The next revelation was that Wakefield had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine which would have brought in a tidy pile of licence fees if he had managed to discredit the existing vaccine and get it dropped from the schedule. Neither the money nor the patent were declared as conflicts of interest at the time of publication.
The next stage in the saga was the revelation that Wakefield had collected pathology samples from children at a child's birthday party without bothering to do all the necessary paperwork. Apparently giving them £5 each was a substitute for getting informed consent from parents and informing the ethics committee at his place of work. In a recorded interview, Wakefield was heard to laugh when telling how one of the children had fainted when the needle went in.
In 2006 the UK General Medical Council announced that it was planning action against Dr Wakefield for unethical conduct.
Then things got worse. It was discovered that the actual payment by the lawyers to Wakefield had been in excess of £500,000 and the money had come from legal aid. The lawyers had discovered a loophole in the law (since closed) that provided legal aid money for research, not just legal fees. The law firm pocketed something like £30,000,000. And what of the quality of the research? It was revealed in a US court case where Wakefield was listed as an expert witness that the laboratory doing the testing supporting his "measles causes autism" hypothesis had only two clients, Wakefield and the law firm, and the quality of their laboratory work was poor anyway. The US court rejected both Wakefield and the laboratory as credible witnesses.
Sometimes good things take time, and in early 2010 the GMC found Wakefield guilty of unethical conduct and stripped him of his right to practise medicine in the UK. The Lancet could no longer ignore the mounting evidence against Wakefield and retracted the 1998 paper in February 2010. This didn't bother him too much because he had already moved to the US and used his money from the lawyers to set up a foundation to continue his "research". In a wonderful example of spin control, Wakefield "resigned" from the foundation.
You might think that the story would end there, with Wakefield disappearing to wherever forgotten people go and his fraudulent research also vanishing into a black hole as it could no longer be cited following its retraction by The Lancet. You would be wrong. Wakefield, no longer constrained by having to act as an ethical medical practitioner, embarked on a round of speaking engagements in which he repeated the lies he had been telling for the last twelve years.
And why do I call them "lies"? The final nail went into the coffin in January 2011 when the British Medical Journal revealed that Wakefield had lied about the medical histories of the subjects of the 1998 paper. Not just been mistaken, not just been a little careless - lied outright.
And the reaction of the anti-vaccination community to this news? Wakefield is a persecuted hero, Brian Deer is a paid shill of Big Pharma, the BMJ is a "newspaper" … .
Life goes on as usual. As does death from preventable diseases, by why should that matter to ideologues?
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the March 2011 edition of Australasian Science