Part 1: the scare unravels
Andrew Wakefield and MMR: the investigation

Brian Deer: the Lancet scandal

brian
Following a Sunday Times investigation by Brian Deer, a leading medical journal was forced to retract fraudulent research by Andrew Wakefield which caused a global crisis by linking a children's vaccine with autism

Sunday Times page 1

Andrew Wakefield investigated: part 1 of 3

Research scandal revealed: When in February 1998 a former gut surgeon, Andrew Wakefield, and 12 associates at London's Royal Free medical school, published in the Lancet medical journal claims linking MMR with autism, it triggered a slump in immunization levels, outbreaks of infectious disease and worldwide public worry

 

But Wakefield's key finding - a claimed time-link of just days between vaccination and autism - was a sham: laundering anonymized allegations for a planned lawsuit, which he had secretly been paid huge sums to back. The Sunday Times, February 2004

In this award-winning investigation for The Sunday Times, Brian Deer exposed Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent research, which unleashed epidemics of fear, guilt and infectious disease. When the investigation concluded in 2011, a Harris Poll found that in the United States alone nearly 145 million people knew Deer's key finding. Click here for a summary

Wakefield story triggers 2004 media firestorm

"So serious": In the week after the first part of Deer's investigation was published (inside spread, right), Britain was gripped with concern over these initial revelations about Andrew Wakefield. Journalists tried to reconstruct events focusing on two former Royal Free doctors: Wakefield, and Lancet editor Richard Horton. The Independent's Jeremy Laurance was among them

 

The Kessick question: Deer's investigation began as a routine assignment, expected to last a few weeks. But it took off with an interview with Wakefield collaborator Rosemary Kessick. The Washington Post picked up on this in a July 2004 report

Sunday Times inside spread
The Lancet panics: Three days before Deer's first story ran, he briefed Lancet editor, Richard Horton and six Lancet staff. The meeting took five hours. Only 48 hours later, Horton press-released the meeting, breaching a confidentiality agreement. These extraordinary events would not be fully revealed until January 2011 in "The Lancet's two days to bury bad news"
Tony Blair

Prime Minister and politicians take up the story

Tony Blair joins calls: The day after Deer's reports were published, the British prime minister spoke out against the six-year attack on MMR. Tony Blair (left) said there was "absolutely no evidence" for a link between MMR and autism. "I hope, now that people see that the situation is somewhat different to what they were led to believe, they will have the triple jab," he said

 

MMR in parliament: In the wake of the first revelations, LibDem MP Evan Harris led a parliamentary debate, during which he took up some of the ethical issues raised in the investigation

MMR mail: Readers' emails came in fast following the Sunday Times reports, overwhelmingly supportive of the investigation. A minority, however, were abusive, as misled former litigants vented frustration. Also, among a number of crank mailers was Wakefield associate Carol Stott, also hired by lawyers to back his campaign. Her "try me shit head" threats went viral

Investigation forces Lancet into two retractions

2004 - partial retraction: Since the Thalidomide scandal of the 1970s, journalism had scored few such clear hits on medicine as when, ten days after Deer's first report, the authors of the 1998 paper, excluding Wakefield, withdrew their claim of a possible link between MMR and autism, producing huge media attention (right)

 

2010 - full retraction: The Lancet finally capitulated after Deer's findings were backed by the UK doctors' regulator, the General Medical Council. On 28 January 2010, a GMC panel (see below) branded Wakefield "dishonest", "unethical" and "callous"

Newspaper coverage of partial retraction
Payments revealed: In 2004, Wakefield denied that money from lawyers was paid to him personally, but in December 2006 the UK Legal Services Commission released details of secret fees of £435,643 [about $780,000 US], about eight times his annual salary. Wakefield's supporters had repeatedly denied that he was paid for his attack. Others also received huge sums
Graph of MMR coverage in England

Parents' confidence in vaccine bounces back

Trend reversed: After years of decline in the face of Wakefield's campaign, this graph shows how the trend in vaccination reversed in the investigation's wake. An English department of health chart reveals how falls in confidence could be linked to Wakefield's attacks, which had begun with unsubstantiated allegations in 1996 that MMR caused the inflammatory bowel disorder Crohn's disease

 

Measles outbreaks: In the years after Wakefield's Lancet claims, measles returned to the UK, including the first deaths in 14 years. Meanwhile, many parents of autistic children suffered guilt, wrongly believing his implied message: that it was their own fault for agreeing to vaccination that a son or daughter had problems

As taught in schools: In 2008, Deer scored a professional first when findings from his investigation became the subject for an exam question for British teenagers, set by the UK Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. See question 5 at this link, and, if you feel you need to, go here to see how you would have scored on this General Certificate of Secondary Education topic

Brian Deer wins a second British Press Award

Press award 2011: Brian Deer receives his second Pulitzer-style British Press Award (video, right), and is named specialist journalist of the year by the Society of Editors. The presentation was made by Sky News anchor Anna Botting at London's Savoy hotel in April 2011, with the judges praising a "tremendous righting of a wrong". At a later event, Deer also received the 2011 HealthWatch award, presented at the Medical Society of London by journalist Nick Ross

 

Secrets of the MMR scare: In January 2011, BMJ, the British Medical Journal, published a three-part series by Deer bringing together much of the extraordinary Wakefield story. The journal's editors denounced the Lancet research as "an elaborate fraud"

Crank magnet: As Deer's investigation unfolded, Wakefield threatened a vaccine whistleblower and took refuge in bizarre conspiracy claims. Meanwhile, more odd characters emerged, such as a graphic artist, Martin J Walker, dubbed the "liar for hire", and a retired scientist, David L Lewis, who had faced his own integrity allegations before fundraising for Wakefield

Vehement denials: Andrew Wakefield refused requests to discuss the vital issues for children's safety, but issued a string of statements entirely rejecting everything. Later, he sued Deer, The Sunday Times and Channel 4 TV in a UK "gagging writ" libel suit, but in January 2007 abandoned his claim and paid Deer compensation for the defence of this website

Andrew Wakefield erased after tribunal rules him "dishonest", "unethical" and "callous"

GMC prosecution: After the longest-ever hearing by a UK General Medical Council panel - a statutory tribunal - on 28 January 2010 Wakefield was branded "dishonest", "unethical" and "callous". On 2 February, his 1998 paper was retracted, and on 17 February he was ousted from a $280,000-a-year job in Austin, Texas

 

Judged against a criminal standard of sureness, he was found guilty on four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of autistic children

Proven dishonesty charges related to Wakefield's Lancet MMR paper, which was also found to be the product of unethical research on uniquely vulnerable children

The five-member panel sat for 217 days, after which, on 24 May 2010, Wakefield was ordered to be erased from the medical register, ending his career as a doctor. Two clinicians were acquitted over their involvement, one by the panel, the other on appeal. Read the GMC findings of fact

 

Andrew Wakefield

Andrew Wakefield