Feb 09 2009

Brian Deer Finds Andrew Wakefield Faked Data

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Comments: 14

In 1998 Andrew Wakefield and others published a small study of only 12 subjects in the Lancet. This small study sparked a huge controversy – Wakefield used it to claim that the MMR (mumps measles and rubella) vaccine caused autism. As a result compliance with the MMR dropped from 92% in the UK down to 85%, and measles cases soared from only 58 cases in 1998 to 1,348 cases in 2008.

Despite the fact that Wakefields paper has been thoroughly discredited, and subsequent studies showed convincingly that there is a lack of association between MMR or vaccines in general and autism, the controversy sparked by Wakefield continues. It has spread to the US as well, where measles cases are also starting to jump. The existing anti-vaccine movement latched onto Wakefield’s study and have been running with the vaccines-cause-autism fear-mongering ever since. While not letting go of MMR, they did shift over to thimerosal (which was never in the MMR vaccine), which has also been cleared from any association with autism (but was removed from vaccines in the US and most countries anyway).

The real story of MMR, thimerosal, vaccines, and autism is a scientific one, and the science has spoken. While further research is always welcome (as long as it is ethical) the question is essentially settled – vaccines do not cause autism. The scientific evidence does not care for the personal saga of Andrew Wakefield, but he has never-the-less become a central figure in this story. He has now been elevated to the status of folk-hero by the antivaccinationists. So while I consider Wakefield a footnote, his story is interesting and instructive.

Investigative journalist Brian Deer has been almost single-handedly responsible for digging up and exposing the sordid details of Wakefields dubious behavior. Over the weekend Deer published yet another expose on Wakefield in the TimesOnline – this time presenting evidence that Wakefield actually faked some of his data. He reports:

However, our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.

If true this is extremely damning.  What it would mean is that Wakefield either deliberately faked data, or he is such a sloppy researcher that he manipulated data to suit his biases. Confirmation bias, cherry picking, and creative interpretation can occur to manipulate data without being conscious that one is out-and-out lying. The difference hardly matters as far as scientific ethics are concerned – a researcher is responsible for the integrity of their data, and in supposed to take care that data is not fake, whether it was deliberate or not.

Wakefield, of course, denies the allegations – which does not tell us if he believes he is guilty or not.

Brian Deer documents many other damning allegations on his website.  For example, Wakefiled applied to patents on a supposedly improved and safer MMR vaccine the year before he published his fateful study. Therefore he had a vested interest in calling the safety of the MMR vaccine into question.

Wakefield’s “theory” of autism was that the MMR vaccine caused inflammatory bowel disease which allowed proteins from the vaccine to gain access to the nervous system, causing autism. He therefore argued that by treating measles infection autism could be helped or even cured. He and the Royal Free Hospital with which he partnered stood to profit from their treatment regimen for autism which targeted measles infection.

Further, it is alleged that the hospital’s lab used improper PCR technique in detecting measles RNA in autistic children.  A later study failed to replicate their results.

Most of Wakefield’s co-authors withdrew their names from the paper and the Lancet has issued a retraction. However, the damage to public perception had already been done.

There’s more – check out Deer’s site for more information.

There are several things that are clear at this point. All of this is irrelevant to the scientific evidence, which confidently points to the conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Every aspect of Wakefield’s research has been thoroughly discredited. The study was terrible science, faked or not. Wakefield himself is a very dubious character, and in fact in under investigation for professional misconduct.

It is also clear from past history that this new revelation will not change the minds of the hard-core antivaccinationists. To them all evidence against Wakefield or his research is just part of the Big Pharma and government conspiracy against him, further elevating his status as a folk-hero and possibly martyr.

But hopefully each new such revelation, and each new piece of scientific evidence supporting vaccine safety, can futher marginalize the very dangerous antivaccinationist quackery.

14 responses so far

14 Responses to “Brian Deer Finds Andrew Wakefield Faked Data”

  1. Willon 09 Feb 2009 at 9:42 am

    Shouldn’t this information have come out years ago?

  2. Michael Hutzleron 09 Feb 2009 at 9:45 am

    Of note, two of the 1,348 cases were fatal. There is a body count.

    While the vaccination rate fell below 80% in the UK, an effort in Africa brought the vaccination rate up to 80%. Annual measles deaths fell from 396,000 to 36,000 (91%).

  3. Dave The Drummeron 09 Feb 2009 at 10:16 am

    NOW can we prosecute these assholes ?

  4. JHWon 09 Feb 2009 at 11:10 am

    Unfortunately, there are friends of mine with the staunch belief that vaccines cause autism. Any logical discussion about valid studies unfortunatley digresses into them quoting studies listed on the Autism Assoc. website:


    Haven’t most of these studies been refuted? Is there a good way to point that out?

  5. MBoazon 09 Feb 2009 at 12:18 pm

    The only question left is does this piece of garbage belong in prison or in the loony bin? What an outrage.

  6. Watcheron 09 Feb 2009 at 12:28 pm

    They have places that are both right?

  7. RickKon 09 Feb 2009 at 12:43 pm

    Michael Hutzler, can you provide links on the facts you gave? I’d like to use them to support arguments I’m having with “disease proponents”.

  8. Michael Hutzleron 09 Feb 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Measles in Africa:

    Another resource, the 2008 surge in measles in the US:

    Many of the cases were imported from European countries that have falling vaccination rates. About half the cases were in people who were not vaccinated for ideological reasons.

  9. HHCon 09 Feb 2009 at 1:50 pm

    Dr. Wakefield is now research director of International Child Developmental Resource Center and affiliated with Thoughtful House in Texas. This discredited researcher in now American’s problem. Perhaps, the Florida and Texas Departments of Professional Regulation should be notified via complaints about his professional conduct.

  10. bmcon 09 Feb 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I’m sure this is a typical rant, but guys like Wakefield really burn my butt. When my eight-year-old daughter was born, we made sure she had every immunization available to her. I remember one doctor getting ready to try to convince us why vaccines were important (which says something about the kind of idiots he has to confront on a daily basis); he looked relieved when we both said, “You don’t have to convince us. She gets every vaccine.”

    Now, she’s in second grade, and there are cases of pertussis being reported in our county (including one in our school district), leading to the obvious question as to whether the stricken children were vaccinated. I don’t know for certain that they weren’t, but given the number of people who buy into the whole “vaccines cause autism” nonsense, I think the odds that these children weren’t immunized is probably high.

    As a parent (never mind a skeptic), it pisses me off.

  11. guitarseanon 09 Feb 2009 at 5:40 pm

    Does this highlight the central problem facing science and skeptics today? How do you kill the bad information once it’s out there. If we have to spend years undoing the damage this kind of thing does what else is going to fester while we’re dealing with the anti-vac crowd. Sometimes it feels like playing whack-a-mole, but there’s a real body count here.

    I’d like to think it can be done through education and getting kids good science and reasoning skills. But the media moves so fast I don’t think we can wait. Hopefully show like Skeptologists take off and we get a few more celebs in our corner.

  12. TsuDhoNimhon 10 Feb 2009 at 5:24 am

    Will – Read Brian Deer’s site. He’s got lots of documents scanned. It’s beyond incompetence.

    Some of this information came out before Wakefield published his paper – he was told by a research assistant that there was no measles virus in the samples. The results were falsely positive because of lab contamination, and Wakefield published anyway.

    Wakefield had earlier tried to show that MMR (against which he seems to have had an unreasoning hatred, nay, a vehement prejudice) caused Crohn’s disease and failed.

    None of the following was revealed to Lancet: Wakefield was hired by a law firm – and paid handsomely – to find a link between MMR and autism well before his so-called research started.

    Eleven of the 12 children were participants in a law suit against the vaccine’s manufacturer.

    Before the research started, Wakefield had applied for patents on a single measles vaccine AND some autism treatment involving goat colostrum, white mice, and a US doctor whose license was yanked for irregularities in prescription handling.

    Either he was deliberately concealing his financial interests and legal involvements or he was utterly incompetent to handle his affairs because he didn’t remember where his money was coming from and what his businesses were.

    Either he deliberately falsified the medical information or he incompetently didn’t bother to look at the children’s medical records (all 12 of them … hardly a difficult task) to verify that what the parents were telling him was true.

    You choose: He was a liar and a fraud or an utterly incompetent nitwit.

  13. Mark Entelon 12 Feb 2009 at 1:10 am

    Head up on the autism/vaccines front, reading a story on CNN about 3 test cases before the Dept of Justice brought by parents alleging vaccine exposure caused their children’s autism. Here’s hoping they grasp the scientific evidence as well as the Judge in the Dover, PA trial


  14. […] In the UK fears that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism (even after the original research by Andrew Wakefield was exposed as wrong, subject to undisclosed conflicts of interest, and maybe even fraudulent, and […]

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