Nearly half of all Americans heard the headline findings of my award-winning investigation into the scientific fraud by Andrew Wakefield which launched a worldwide scare over the safety of children's vaccines, according to a Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll. This astonishing figure was released as my BMJ series "Secrets of the MMR scare" ran in the British medical journal in January 2011.
According to Harris, 47% of Americans - almost 145 million people - were aware of the story, following widespread international coverage of the first installment of the series, "How the case against the MMR vaccine scare was fixed", and an accompanying editorial by the journal, "Wakefield article linking the MMR vaccine with autism was fraudulent", published on 5 January.
The question posed by Harris also included reference to the retraction last year of Wakefield's notorious 1998 research in the Lancet medical journal, following a UK General Medical Council hearing, brought about by my ongoing investigation for The Sunday Times of London. That hearing dubbed the disgraced doctor "dishonest", "unethical" and "callous", and ordered him to be erased from the medical register.
Harris released its findings under the heading "Aware that research linking autism to vaccines has been discredited", and asked those surveyed: "Are you aware that the medical journal that published a paper linking vaccines to autism has now withdrawn the paper and a published account describes the research as fraudulent."
The poll's findings also suggest a striking reversal in public opinion as a result of the investigation. Of those who said that they had heard the story, 35% said they believed the theory that vaccines can cause autism is true, while 65% said they believed it was not true. Of the 53% who had not heard the story, the picture was the opposite: 65% said they believed the theory, and 35% said they did not.
"Forty-seven percent is a huge number and this is a relatively new thing, so it's remarkable that they have heard of it. But that still means that half the population has not," commented Humphrey Taylor, chairman of The Harris Poll.
A HealthDay commentary on the poll said: "Vaccine safety has been a major concern for many parents since the publication of the 1998 study, led by now disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield, which concluded that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The journal that originally published the study, The Lancet, has since retracted the paper and Wakefield was recently barred from practicing medicine in Britain.
"In recent weeks, another leading British medical journal, BMJ, has published a series of articles purporting to expose deliberate fraud by Wakefield in his handling of the research that served as the basis for the 1998 study."
Dr Kenneth Bromberg, chairman of pediatrics at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, New York City, was also quoted by HealthDay. He said: "There seems to be reasonable support for vaccination and I think this will increase with the revelation that a lot of this stuff was based on fraud or bad science."
Media coverage of our reporting across America was very substantial, including an editorial in the New York Times. "Now the British Medical Journal has taken the extraordinary step of publishing a lengthy report by Brian Deer, the British investigative journalist who first brought the paper's flaws to light - and has put its own reputation on the line by endorsing his findings," this said on January 13.
Similar heavy coverage also figured in Canadian, Australian and New Zealand media. In those countries, Wakefield's fraud has continued to cause suffering, particularly among the parents of autistic children, some of whom have been led to believe that it was their own fault for vaccinating their child that they had experienced problems.
The Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll was conducted online within the United States from 11-13 January 2011, and included 2,026 adults over the age of 18. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population.