From the MMR investigation

The Sunday Times logo

Weeping wounds

of the MMR scare

The Sunday Times, May 23 2010

Brian Deer

Tomorrow the doctor who started a panic may be struck off, but for some the pain will never end

Tomorrow morning, at about 9.30, I’ll stroll down the Euston Road in London and will almost certainly be greeted with screams of abuse. “Who’s pulling your strings, Brian?” someone will yell above the drone of traffic. “Boooo ... yaaahh ... liar!”

My furious detractors — mainly women — will, as always, be crammed behind metal barriers just outside the offices of the General Medical Council (GMC). Some will be clutching placards — indeed, I was once hit smartly over the head with one. As well as personal abuse, they will chant slogans: “We’re backing Wakefield ... MMR: a jab too far ... 1 in 100 children have autism.”

This has been going on at key junctures for nearly three years now — since the GMC began its longest medical misconduct inquiry yet, in July 2007.

Tomorrow, three floors above the street, the mood will be sombre. The inquiry has finally drawn to its conclusion, and Andrew Wakefield — known as “the MMR doctor” — is likely to be struck off the medical register for what the five-member tribunal has already labelled “dishonest”, “unethical” and “callous” research.

In withdrawing his licence to practise, the council will be laying to rest a huge scare that spread rapidly among parents, causing a massive slump in the number of children who were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella in Britain. Two children subsequently died of measles and many others became seriously ill.

At the heart of the scare was an alleged link between the MMR triple vaccine and the onset of autism. Twelve years ago, with the help of 12 colleagues, Wakefield published a research paper in the medical journal The Lancet in which he claimed that the families of eight children attending a medical clinic had complained that autistic symptoms had appeared within days of the children receiving the MMR jab.

Subsequent research, he said, confirmed these findings, and he also claimed to have discovered a new inflammatory bowel disease that was linked to the vaccine.

As anxious parents who could afford it queued up to pay for single injections, and many thousands of others left their children unvaccinated, The Sunday Times began to investigate. Wakefield’s research, I soon discovered, was tainted by personal gain.

Groups campaigning against the MMR vaccine were referring parents of autistic children to him in order to prepare a lawsuit — and Wakefield had already earned £400,000, plus expenses, for his work on their cases. Furthermore, he had also patented a single vaccine, just months before he had called for the triple vaccine to be suspended, that would have raked in many thousands more.

Wakefield’s response to my stories was to sue me and The Sunday Times for libel. Like his research, however, his lawsuit was all empty bluster. Two years later, before withdrawing his claim and sending me a cheque for my costs, he was accused by the judge, Mr Justice Eady, of trying to use litigation “to close down discussion and debate”.

Ironically, it was one of the parents of a child in the research paper who really triggered the surgeon’s fall. In September 2003 I interviewed a mother whose autistic son had appeared in the Lancet article as Child 2. What she told me about the onset of her son’s symptoms was notably different from Wakefield’s account in The Lancet.

A few days later I took this up with a professor called John Walker-Smith, who had worked on the paper with Wakefield. He would later become a co-defendant in the GMC proceedings, and he too may be struck off tomorrow morning.

There was no case in the Lancet paper that was consistent with the case history the mother of Child 2 had given me, I told him.

“Well, that could be true,” he replied disarmingly.

So either what she told me was inaccurate, or the paper itself was inaccurate...

“Well, I can’t really comment,” he said. “You really touch on an area which I don’t think should be debated like this. And I think these parents are wrong to discuss such details, where you could be put in a position of having a lot of medical details and then trying to match it with this. Because it is a confidential matter.”

The GMC decided to investigate my findings. And Wakefield duly turned up to the hearings but called no witnesses during 143 days of evidence.

Then, in January this year, the tribunal of three doctors and two lay people delivered its findings. Wakefield, 53, was found guilty of about three dozen charges, including four of dishonesty and 12 involving the medical abuse of uniquely vulnerable, developmentally challenged young children.

His research on the childrenwas found to be “dishonest” and “unethical”. In pursuit of his patented theory that the vaccine caused bowel disease, for instance, he had had tubes inserted into their guts and needles into their spines — both risky medical procedures that they did not need.

Among the worst victims of the MMR scare were the parents who believed Wakefield’s findings — a few of whom will no doubt once again be shouting slogans tomorrow. I feel only compassion for them. Imagine how terrible it must be to believe that your son or daughter’s autism is your own fault, just because you had your child vaccinated.

“In a way, making the connection was worse for us,” said the mother of the youngster referred to as Child 12 in The Lancet. “We had convinced ourselves it was nothing we had done. Now we knew it was our fault.”

Wakefield had offered them answers when no one else could say why the incidence of autism was on the rise. But in the end he brought these parents only more pain.

Even some of those involved in his research now tell me they have had enough of his antics. “Please let me know if Andrew W has his doctor’s licence revoked,” emailed the father of Child 11. “His misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable. His motives for this, I may never know.”

As for Wakefield himself, he was recently ousted from a lucrative research post in Texas and claims he is the victim of dark forces connected with the government and the drug industry. “The allegations against me and my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust,” he told the protesters in January.

Once, Wakefield’s words were enough to make vaccination rates plummet. The rates started climbing again after The Sunday Times began its investigation — and now levels are nearly back to where they were before his crusade began.

Copyright, Brian Deer. All rights reserved. No portion of this article on MMR and Andrew Wakefield may be copied, retransmitted, reposted, duplicated or otherwise used without the express written approval of the author. Responses, information and other feedback are appreciated - via the contact page