It has been 20 years since the gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield co-authored a now notorious and debunked medical paper that claimed to have found a link between autism and the use of a common children’s vaccine.
The paper, later retracted by The Lancet, helped lead to a drop-off in vaccination rates and an increase in outbreak diseases such as measles, not only in Britain and Europe, but in the US. The doctor was subsequently found guilty by the British General Medical Council (GMC) of three-dozen charges, including dishonesty and abuse of children, and struck off the medical register.
Yet two decades later, Wakefield, unable to practice in the UK, has remade himself in Donald Trump’s America, travelling the country to promote views experts say have had deadly consequences and seemingly finding an ally in the president.
Last year, the 61-year-old was directly linked to an outbreak of measles among the Somali American community in Minnesota – the largest in the state for many years – after he visited and shared his views with them. He has also been associated with a drop-off in vaccination rates in Texas, where he lives.
Wakefield remains defiant, even though the editor of The Lancet said statements contained in his 1998 study claiming a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, were “utterly false” and 10 co-authors issued a statement saying there was insufficient evidence to draw the conclusion the vaccine was not safe.
“I was discredited in the eyes of those who wanted to see me discredited. In other words, those who had an interest in maintaining the status quo,” he recently told The Independent.
Questions about Wakefield’s findings were first raised by a series of journalistic investigations in the early 2000s, and he was charged with professional misconduct by the GMC in 2006.
Shortly before then, the former fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons moved to Texas where he found plenty of people interested in his debunked claims. He was supported by some on the fringes of the medical community and celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.
Yet since Trump’s election, Wakefield’s campaign has found fresh momentum. The president claimed during a 2015 Republican debate that the child of an employee developed autism after receiving a vaccine, asserting a link that has been stridently disputed by the British and US governments’ leading experts and numerous peer-reviewed papers.
“You take this little, beautiful baby and you pump – I mean it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child,” Trump said, without providing further details.
In the summer of 2016, Wakefield was one of four anti-vaccine campaigners Trump met for 45 minutes, and he also attended one of his inauguration balls after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. After he entered the White House, Trump is said to have considered appointing another vaccine sceptic, Robert F Kennedy, to head a commission to look into their safety. That idea currently appears stalled.
Asked about his meeting with Trump, Wakefield said: “I met him once before the election, when he was running for the presidency. We had a meeting in Florida. We were there, four of us representing the issue of autism and its link to immunisation.
“He interjected and said, ‘You don’t need to tell me that vaccines cause autism. I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it personally’. We went on to discuss the issue of the autism crisis that is set to affect 80 per cent of boys if nothing is done. He said if he was to be elected he’d do something about it.”
Asked if he was seeking to seize on the issue in the US because he had been disgraced in Britain, Wakefield, said: “I was discredited in the eyes of those who wanted to see me discredited. In other words, those who had an interest in maintaining the status quo.
“I don’t represent any of them. What I represent is the parents and the children who have been damaged.
“Is there a real case to answer? Absolutely. Do I believe vaccines cause autism? Yes I do. Is the problem equally as large in the US? Yes it is.”
The overwhelming majority of experts in the field say Wakefield is wrong and point to as many as 17 studies showing no link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which was first introduced in the UK in 1988. Those same experts claim his campaign to try and prove a link continues to have hugely damaging consequences.
“Despite the fact that his findings were found to be fraudulent, that the paper was later retracted and that Wakefield was struck-off the medical register for dishonesty, the damage was done,” Seth Berkley, the chief executive of Gavi, a private-public organisation previously known as the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, wrote recently.
“Public confidence in MMR and vaccination has never fully recovered, at least not in developed countries. This was made evident by recent news that the number of measles cases in Europe increased by 400 per cent in 2017, with more than 20,000 cases and 35 needless deaths.”
In the US, Wakefield has been directly accused over an outbreak of measles in Minnesota last year in which 79 people were infected, the vast majority children under the age of the 10. Most of those affected were members of the Somali American community, a group that had previously vaccinated its youngsters but among which vaccination rates fell off amid ungrounded fears about a link to autism.
Wakefield and other anti-vaccine campaigners visited the community, which is concentrated in Minneapolis, and pushed their theories. The community, which had traditionally had a vaccination rate higher than others in the state, saw it drop from 92 per cent to around 40 per cent.
Last year, when the state experienced almost 80 cases of measles – the highest number for decades and more than the average for the entire US – 20 required hospital treatment.
Health officials said they were convinced Wakefield and other activists, who visited the Somali population on several occasions, bore a degree of responsibility.
“The biggest impact is connecting a condition, that is one that challenges any parent who has a child with autism, and connecting that to immunisations, and specifically MMR,” said Lynn Bahta, the immunisation clinical consultant with the Minnesota Department of Health.
“Among our Somali American community we have their rates go from 92 per cent which was higher than non-Somali rates, down to 42 per cent. And that puts them in a very very vulnerable position.”
Part of the authorities’ response to the outbreak was to involve community leaders, in particular Muslim imams who were able to speak to members of their mosques about the dangers of not getting their children vaccinated.
One of the imams who led the effort, which involved at least 30 of his colleagues, was Sharif Abdirahman, the Muslim leader at Dar al Hijrah mosque in the city’s Cedar-Riverside neighbourhood. He said he was able to appeal to people using both religion and science.
“Islam is a religion of expertise,” he said. “Verses in the Koran say ... if you don’t a know subject ask the advice of people who know the subject very well. I say to the community, take the advice of people who know the subject very well and don’t get information from someone who doesn’t know anything.”
Wakefield, who was speaking in Kansas City at a conference of chiropractors (a form of treatment generally considered a form of complementary or alternative medicine and whose founder DD Palmer believed all human ailments could be cured by manipulation of the spine) has also been linked to the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment in Texas, where he lives with his wife and children.
It was recently reported that since Wakefield moved to the state in the early 2000s, the number of children in Texas who have obtained “conscientious” exemptions for at least one vaccine has increased by 1,900, according to one study.
Anti-vaccine groups in Houston, with Wakefield’s support, recently narrowly failed to defeat moderate Republican Sarah Davis – who had spoken in favour of mandatory vaccines, in the primary contest for the state legislature – to replace her with a more conservative candidate.
“I think they have picked the wrong district to wage a war on vaccines in,” Davis told the Houston Chronicle.
Since moving to Texas, Wakefield has been involved in a series of organisations and charities related to autism and trying to prove a link between the condition and the use of vaccines.
These included the Thoughtful House Centre for Children, where he served as medical director from 2005 to 2010. It later changed its name to the Johnson Centre for Child Health and Development. He also established the Strategic Autism Initiative, which he ran with Polly Tommey, a British mother with an autistic son.
In 2016, Wakefield directed and appeared in a film called Vaxxed, which was produced by Tommey. The film claims to expose what it says was a case of fraud at the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), the country’s primary national public health institute.
The film was to be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival until the festival’s founder Robert de Niro – who has a child with autism – reversed the plan following a public outcry. It claims to show a cover-up at the CDC regarding a study between autism and MMR and bases its claim on the recorded comments of “whistleblower” William Thompson, a CDC scientist who did not know his comments were being recorded by a colleague.
In a statement released at the time, Thompson said he remained concerned that “statistically significant information” had been omitted from a 2004 article published in the journal Pediatrics. Yet, he added: “I want to be absolutely clear that I believe vaccines have saved and continue to save countless lives.
“I would never suggest that any parent avoid vaccinating children of any race. Vaccines prevent serious diseases, and the risks associated with their administration are vastly outweighed by their individual and societal benefits.”
Wakefield and his supporters continue to give talks about their anti-vaccine views and show the film, which has been widely criticised by experts in the field. A review by Ed Cara in Medical Daily said: “Vaxxed doesn’t care about convincing its audience with evidence.
“Instead, Wakefield, Hooker, and producer Del Bigtree run the viewer through a well-trod gauntlet of emotional pleas, context-free statistics and shadowy conspiracies, with Bigtree claiming that ‘all of television’ has been bought out by the pharmaceutical industry.”
Asked whether Thompson’s statement undermined his film, Wakefield said he did not care about his views, but was interested in exposing a fraud at the CDC. Asked why he was showing the film to Somalis in Minneapolis and other group that may be considered vulnerable, he said: “We have been showing the film to anyone who wants to watch it, we’ve not been specifically showing it to people of colour. The implication you put forward is wholly unjustified. The film was shown to whoever wanted to see it.”
He said he had gone to Minneapolis at the invitation of the Somali community which was worried about their “exquisite risk” at contracting autism from vaccines – something health officials in the state say is not borne out by data. He said: “They had a problem and they asked me to help.”
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