The British Medical Journal released an article last night by Brian Deer, in which the reporter investigates every patient used in Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s game-changing 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine to the sudden onset of autism-and finds “misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration” in every one. The article itself is fantastic, old-school journalism, and “accidental economist” and author Aaron Carroll has pulled the tastiest excerpts and accusations out on his blog for those with shorter attention spans. Suffice it to say that any remaining gloves are off in the medical community: Wakefield’s work is now officially a “fraud,” a “lie,” “gross” misreporting, “dishonest,” a “disgrace.”
Will it make any difference?
Many medical professionals trace the decrease in vaccinations of children both here and in England directly back to Wakefield’s initial article, and lay the blame for an increase in the incidence of measles on him as well. Wakefield’s work played directly into the hands of fearful parents, preying on our natural human desire to see patterns, links, and causation in everything (autism’s appearance often coincides with the age at which the MMR vaccine is given). But even this final nail in Wakefield’s scientific coffin isn’t likely to change the minds of his followers. The initial “study” itself was so anecdotal and even the (apparently doctored and falsified) connections it alleged were so frail that no thinking person would ever have placed much credence in it-except someone who desperately wanted to believe.
While the BMJ ‘s reporting won’t have much effect on the Jenny McCarthys of the world, it may lower the volume and power of her voice. Vaccine refusals have increased in the past decade (and anti-vaccers will tell you their fears go beyond MMR and autism), but so has the shouting down of the anti-vaccine movement from the media and the community. As the incidence of measles and whooping cough goes up, so does our realization that vaccination refusers put not just their own children but the entire community at risk. New parents weigh vaccination decisions every day. The word fraud just may be heavy enough to sway them back in the right direction.
Photograph of Jenny McCarthy by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images.