Jeremy Laurance: Medicine needs mavericks – but he was just wrong

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The Independent Online

A week after publishing his Lancet paper in 1998 which triggered the scare over the MMR vaccine, Andrew Wakefield said in an interview with The Independent: "If I am wrong I will be a bad person because I will have raised this spectre. But I have to address the questions my patients put to me. My duty is to investigate their stories."

For 12 years he has painted himself as a campaigner on behalf of the children brought to him by desperate parents searching for the cause of their offspring's suffering. His suggestion of a possible link with MMR vaccine chimed with parents' deepest fears about the safety of exposing babies' developing immune systems to potentially toxic drugs. But it also threatened to destabilise carefully nurtured vaccination programmes which are acknowledged to have saved millions of lives worldwide.

"I have thought about this every night for the last 10 years," he said in 1998. "My children say 'Why do you do, what you do, Daddy?' and I do not know what to say to them. It is a moral issue for me."

Yesterday, the GMC decided it was Dr Wakefield who was morally at fault, for betraying his patients' trust, accepting money from the Legal Aid Board under false pretences, failing to disclose details of the way the patients were collected to the Lancet and, most importantly of all, conducting invasive and unpleasant investigations on vulnerable children which were of no benefit to them but only to his research.

Despite this, he remains defiant. In a statement yesterday, he said the "entire GMC fiasco has been a smokescreen" to cover up irresponsible vaccine policy by the Government and that he planned to "carry on exactly as I am – working on behalf of children, on a safety first vaccine policy" in the USA.

He is shortly to publish a book, Callous Disregard, whose title is taken directly from the GMC's judgment against him. He still has a small vocal band of supporters, a few dozen of whom waved placards with slogans including "Guilty of helping our damaged kids" and "One jab doesn't fit all" outside the GMC's London headquarters yesterday. Medicine needs its mavericks. The history of scientific advance is littered with individuals who held out against major political and commercial interests. Think of smoking and cancer – a link that took decades to establish against the carefully orchestrated obfuscations of the tobacco industry.

But these brave and gifted individuals are hugely outnumbered by those who believed they were on to something and whose hypotheses later died. The problem for Dr Wakefield is that although a handful of studies have appeared to offer him support, scores have failed to do so. Every major medical organisation believes there is no safety issue over the MMR vaccine. The Lancet has withdrawn his paper and the GMC has discredited his methods. He has lost the scientific argument – and, with yesterday's verdict, now the moral one too.