The MMR vaccine scare is now 15 years old, and its consequences are clearly seen in plummeting vaccination rates, soaring measles cases and now long queues of parents on the streets of Swansea where the latest, and worst, outbreak of the disease has caused hundreds of children to suffer a dangerous, but avoidable, illness. Yet Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who sparked the panic with his 1998 research paper in The Lancet linking the MMR vaccine with bowel disease and autism remains defiant.
His research has been discredited; he has lost his job; his reputation is in tatters and his licence to practise medicine has been withdrawn. Efforts to confirm his findings have failed. His latest outburst, on the Age of Autism website, the “daily web newspaper of the autism epidemic”, suggests a siege mentality. He lashes out at all those who do not share his view. He occupies a parallel universe in which his arguments appear internally consistent, but conflict with reality.
He claims that imports of single vaccines were restricted in 1998 “to protect the MMR programme over and above the protection of children”. Wrong. They were restricted to protect children – from multiple jabs, from repeated clinic visits they were likely to miss and from deferred protection against measles, mumps and rubella that would have left them vulnerable. He claims the government covered up a problem with early versions of the vaccine, which was withdrawn because it caused a form of viral meningitis, and that it put “price before children’s health”. Wrong. There was no financial motive and there was no cover-up.
He claims that “millions of dollars” have been paid out to children in court cases who suffered brain damage following vaccination and that this shows “MMR can cause autism”. It doesn’t. What it shows is that judges, struggling to reach a fair conclusion amid competing claims, and taking account of the wider personal and legal context, sometimes make judgments that are at variance with the scientific facts. Andrew Wakefield has done enough damage to the health of children in the UK. An understanding of why he is wrong will help to ensure he does not do more.