In 1998 British physician Andrew Wakefield authored an article in the prestigious medical journal Lancet linking the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism. Recently he has been accused of scientific misconduct leading to the vaccine-autism scare. Now he is banned from practicing medicine in England.   

I am not going into the allegations against the study – you may look them over here if you like. Critics maintain that Wakefield’s results were intentionally falsified to support the conclusion that MMR may influence incidences of autism. The British General Medical Council agrees. Earlier this year the council concluded that Wakefield “acted dishonestly and irresponsibly in his controversial research.” I have no reason to doubt these accusations.

Wakefield’s critics are now claiming that he has blood on his hands. Because of the vaccine-autism scare which he perpetuated, many parents refused the MMR vaccine for their children, leading to a spike in rates of measles, mumps, and rubella and an increase in serious illness and deaths from these diseases.

I think Wakefield took a bold gamble and lost. There are two ways this could have gone. (1) If subsequent research had confirmed his conclusions (it has not, by the way), he would have been hailed as a hero and we would have given him a Nobel Prize in medicine. (2) Subsequent research did not confirm his conclusions, so investigations and accusations followed to the point where he has been branded a charlatan by the larger medical community. Poor Wakefield – he flipped a coin and called “heads”, but it came up tails.

Scientific misconduct aside, I think Wakefield deserves some credit. You see I am a parent of young children. When I find out that they are going to get 3-5 vaccines in one day according to the guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics, I cringe. Common sense tells me that 3-5 shots are overloading my kid’s immune systems, which is why they are sometimes cranky and feverish for the next 24 hours. Hey you guys setting the vaccine schedule, do ya think we could spread this out a bit?

In all likelihood Wakefield’s research also contributed to the recent debate on the use of Thimerosal in vaccines. Thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines. While there is no evidence to suggest that it increases the risk of autism and other disorders, in 1999 the American Academy of Pediatrics agreed to reduce or eliminate Thimerosal in childhood vaccines as a precautionary measure. As a parent I think this is a good thing regardless of what the science says or does not say.

I am not trying to take sides on the Wakefield debate; I am pointing out that some good has come from it. The debate prompted a lot of research that definitively answered whether vaccines influence autism, and it raised awareness of the heavy vaccine schedule for children and the use of Thimerosal as a preservative.

While his article may have prompted some parents to forgo the MMR vaccine, thus leading to increased rates of these diseases, let’s be careful about putting all the blame on Wakefield. There are other reasons why people don’t get their children vaccinated (e.g., financial, distrust, religious, complacency, etc.), and vaccines are not 100% effective at preventing disease.

2 cents.

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