Last week, British medical journal “The Lancet” retracted a 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues that initiated that panic over a purported link between MMR vaccines and autism. This followed a censure of Wakefield issued by the UK’s General Medical Council for unethical behavior. The Lancet’s editor says that after reading the regulatory decision that the paper was ”utterly false” and that he felt “deceived”.
For those of you that don’t follow these things, here is a brief recap of the history of the MMR/autism scare (I did a couple of more in depth posts on autism and vaccines here and here if you’re interested in reading more). It all stems from the recently retracted Lancet paper, which purported a link between the MMR vaccine and childhood autism. Wakefield and his colleagues claimed that the vaccine caused an irritation to the bowel, making it more permeable to the proteins delivered by the vaccine allowing them to leak into the bloodstream. The researchers claimed that these proteins acted as toxins and caused serious developmental brain damage, particularly autism.
Wakefield’s paper was riddled with problems but problems be damned, the Lancet paper set off a firestorm in the British and world media. For example, in just six months in 2002 in Britain there were over 500 stories about MMR and autism. The MMR vaccine and any other vaccines containing a mercury based compound known as thimerosol (TCV) came under scrutiny by the press. Unfortunately, these stories rarely featured a rigorous examination of the facts on the ground. Every time that one of these stories hit the press more parents opt out of vaccination. Since 1999, the number of parents in the U.S. opting out of the MMR vaccination has nearly tripled. Cases of measles, which had been eliminated in the U.S., are on the rise. There were 72 cases reported in ten states in the first half of 2008. This can be causally linked to people opting out of the vaccine. More striking however, is that nearly 900,000 people worldwide, many of them children, died from measles in 1999. That figure was down to 345,000 in 2005 due largely to an initiative by the Measles Initiative to make the MMR vaccine more available in the third world.
Now we know that Wakefield ”failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”, acted against the interests of his patients and “dishonestly and irresponsibly” conducted his research. In other words, he lied – his results were phony. He was being paid by the lawyers of autistic children. I don’t believe in hell, per se, but I hope there is some particularly nasty place for people like Andrew Wakefield. Measles could have been more or less eradicated in the Western world by now, but for Wakefield’s bogus report and subsequent defenses of his ‘research’.
However, Wakefield is only partially to blame. Without an accomplice, Wakefield’s study would likely have laid dormant in dusty old copies of The Lancet. But Wakefield had a rabid British and American media, drooling madly over a juicy ’science’ story. It was a perfect science story for the media – simplistic, exciting and involving children. And they jumped all over it, competing to see who could come up with the most terrifying headlines linking the vaccine and autism. In the face of overwhelming evidence that Wakefield’s study was a statistical aberration at best or sheer crap at worst, they continued to produce thoughtful stories about the ‘debate’ over the vaccine. To their credit, they’re now falling all over themselves to correct the record, but these things are hard to pull back. And it isn’t the first time the media has gotten a science story horribly wrong, nor will it be the last.
Yes, it is much harder to pull these kind of lies about science back than it is to throw them out there in the first place. There is a generation of parents that will associate the MMR vaccine with autism, despite the fallacy of this association. There is now a generation of children that could suffer from serious diseases that should never have been a threat to them. It is likely that parents - the Jenny McCarthy cohort – who will continue to spurn the vaccine, thus exposing their children – and mine – to diseases that should be non-existent.
Why mine? Because the crucial factor in eradication of particular diseases in a community is the proportion of individuals in the community who are immune, so called herd immunity. If the number of immune individuals is high, the disease can only infect susceptible (or non-immunized) individuals. Those susceptible individuals serve as a reservoir for the disease, allowing it to propagate and be maintained.
Herd immunity is particularly important for diseases like measles. The MMR vaccine is not 100% effective, it produces immunity in 90-95% of people vaccinated. This is usually high enough to protect everyone in a community because of herd immunity. However, when vaccination levels drop then the level of protection offered by the vaccine also drops.¹ In other words, your decision not to vaccinate your kid affects not only your kid but my kid and every other kid in your community. It is a socially irresponsible decision and one that Andrew Wakefield and the media-gasm over his fraudulent science helped to propagate.
Here is the truth: vaccines do not make your children autistic. However, not vaccinating them makes them much more likely to get seriously ill. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Get your children vaccinated. For their sake and for my kids’ sake.
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