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Jan. 06, 2011

The Great Autism-Vaccine Fraud

by Joel N. Shurkin

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The scandal that is the anti-vaccination movement may have finally reached its nadir with news that the seminal paper linking childhood vaccinations to autism is a complete fake. The paper had already been retracted and most of the signers had withdrawn their names, but now a British journalist has uncovered the dark secret: The paper was an elaborate fraud.
 
The paper, first published in Lancet Feb. 28, 1998, claimed that a common childhood vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella, was a cause of autism. The paper led to a movement that discouraged parents from having their children vaccinated. The result of the movement, led mostly by professional celebrity Jenny McCarthy, has led to an increase of the diseases, and a number of deaths.

Wakefield reported on 12 cases, all he said were normal children until they received the MMR vaccine. Eight of the 12, the paper claimed, soon developed autism. But British journalist Brian Deer (in work that would have won him a Pulitzer if he hadn’t been a British journalist) went back to the records and found that five of the kids had developmental problems before receiving the vaccine, and reports on all the other children were manipulated. Deer wrote that Wakefield, who has lost his license to practice medicine in Britain and now lives in the U.S., had a monetary relationship with lawyers anxious to sue the vaccine makers.

Deer’s expose appears in the British Medical Journal and his work, interestingly, was paid for by the Sunday Times of London and the Channel Four Television Network. Among the findings:

*Three of nine children reported with regressive autism did not have autism diagnosed at all. Only one child clearly had regressive autism.

*Despite the paper claiming that all 12 children were 'previously normal,' five had documented pre-existing developmental concerns

*Some children were reported to have experienced first behavioral symptoms within days of MMR, but the records documented these as starting some months after vaccination

* In nine cases, unremarkable colonic histopathology results—noting no or minimal fluctuations in inflammatory cell populations—were changed after a medical school 'research review' to 'non-specific colitis'.

*The parents of eight children were reported as blaming MMR, but 11 families made this allegation at the hospital. The exclusion of three allegations—all giving times to onset of problems in months—helped to create the appearance of a 14 day temporal link.

*Patients were recruited through anti-MMR campaigners, and the study was commissioned and funded for planned litigation.

Wakefield says his findings were distorted. No they weren't.

The movement against vaccination mostly has been fueled by parents with autistic children who, it would seem, need to find someone or something to blame for their children's plight. No one knows the cause  of autism, although it apparently has a strong genetic component. McCarthy, a former Playboy Playmate of the Year and failed actress, whose son Evan has autism, denounced the MMR vaccine, normally given to  infants. She convinced thousands of people to not get their children  vaccinated. Even years after it was clear the paper had no scientific  basis, McCarthy and her followers continued to war against the  vaccinations. Enough parents believed the assertions that childhood  diseases almost unknown in the U.S. came back. Children have died.

Movements like hers do not go away just because their basic premise has been proven fraudulent. In this age of anti-science, truth is not a  defense.
About Joel N. Shurkin

Joel N. Shurkin is a Baltimore-based writer. He is author of nine books and taught journalism at Stanford University, UC Santa Cruz, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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