Andrew Wakefield is one of them. He’s the guy who promoted faulty research that implicates vaccines in the onset of autism, and encouraged parents not to vaccinate their kids. As a result, diseases that were nearly eradicated have returned, and are putting kids at risk.
Although Wakefield did not claim to have proved that the M.M.R. vaccine (typically given to children at 12 to 15 months) caused autism, his concerns, not his caveats, ricocheted around the world. His belief, based on a paper he wrote about 12 children, is that the three vaccines, given together, can alter a child’s immune system, allowing the measles virus in the vaccine to infiltrate the intestines; certain proteins, escaping from the intestines, could then reach and harm neurons in the brain. Few theories have drawn so much attention and, in turn, so much refutation: a 2003 paper in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, which reviewed a dozen epidemiological studies, concluded that there was no evidence of an association between autism and M.M.R., and studies in peer-reviewed journals since have come to the same conclusion. In Britain, the General Medical Council revoked Wakefield’s medical license after a lengthy hearing, citing numerous ethical violations that tainted his work, like failing to disclose financing from lawyers who were mounting a case against vaccine manufacturers. The Lancet, which published the original Wakefield paper, retracted it. In a series that ran early this year, The British Medical Journal concluded that the research was not just unethically financed but also “fraudulent” (that timelines were misrepresented, for example, to suggest direct culpability of the vaccine).
Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, blamed directly and indirectly, depending on the accuser, for irresponsibly starting a panic with tragic repercussions: vaccination rates so low that childhood diseases once all but eradicated here — whooping cough and measles, among them — have re-emerged, endangering young lives.
I can understand the desire, on the part of parents, to try to target the cause of autism (and when it’s something like vaccines, it allows parents to blame themselves just a little bit, which I imagine for some people is a burden they want to bear). But the idolization of Wakefield seems to happen primarily because he is so sure of himself and he gives parents an answer, where the more widely-accepted medical truth about what causes autism is “we don’t know yet.”
Wakefield also listens to parents and validates their experiences, which is too rare in the medical field. One mother of an autistic child says, “I don’t care if my son was overtreated or cured — just the validation that we as parents who knew something was wrong got an answer. Just the fact that someone listened and someone tried to do something — someone said, ‘Yeah, this is not just autism; your son has a real medical issue that we can treat.’ I think that validation is all that parents want — just that someone is taking the symptoms we report and looking at them to see what can we do about it.”
It’s too bad that the person who appears to be listening is more interested in preserving his own star status than in actually helping kids, and telling their parents a difficult truth.