Work to combat Wakefield's glaring falsehoods
Autism is a hazy, blurry diagnosis. It's a spectrum disorder, which means that nonverbal, barely functional individuals share the same diagnosis as people who just seem a bit unusual. It does not always feature identical or even similar symptoms. Some children may have gastrointestinal issues, while others have none-yet they may be equally autistic. Questionnaires, calls to teachers and sit-downs with psychiatrists and pediatricians, along with hours of behavioral observation, are often necessary to begin to close in on the possibility of a diagnosis of autism. Parents are left to wonder if something terrible could be going on in their child's brain or if he or she is just going through a rough patch. Even worse, the treatments for autism remain scattered, difficult and time-consuming as well. There is no pill for autism, no shot, no surgery-only scores of time, money and effort. Years of therapy involving a variety of different professionals are often suggested, including in the child's home and school environment. The processes of diagnosis and treatment of autism are painful, difficult and uncertain. For Andrew Wakefield, a former United Kingdom physician who spoke at Brandeis on April 13, this wealth of human anguish has been a wellspring of money.
There is never a shortage of individuals willing to peddle snake oil to profit from the suffering of others. Drug dealers bank on addiction to line their pockets, mediums who salivate over grief and prophets of the apocalypse are often the beneficiaries of terrified individuals discarding their life's wealth. In my opinion, Wakefield is just another such predator savvy to the willingness of hurt, frightened people to open their wallets. Under normal circumstances, I would only be moderately disgusted by that sort of behavior, but Wakefield's claims have made him an enemy of public health far more insidious than the childhood diseases of yesteryear: You may know him as the individual who first "linked" the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism.
I use the term "linked" cautiously because, as was later proven, there is no link. In January 2010, the British General Medical Council conducted an investigation into Wakefield's 1998 study demonstrating a causative relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism. They concluded that Wakefield was guilty of numerous counts of dishonesty and the outright falsification of information in his study, as well as the highly unethical abuse of children. The study was subsequently fully retracted by The Lancet, the journal originally responsible for its publication. Ten of Wakefield's 12 co-authors retracted their support of the conclusion that MMR vaccines are linked to autism, citing insufficient evidence and major public health implications. There have been no studies since replicating Wakefield's findings.
That is not the only ugly side of Wakefield's "science." In 2006, Brian Deer, a journalist for Britain's Sunday Times, discovered payments of huge sums made to Wakefield by a group of lawyers pursuing a suit against MMR vaccine manufacturers 2 years before his study was published. Wakefield has done his best to chalk all of these findings up to a conspiracy against him personally, as though the monolithic group consisting of "everyone else" has decided to make an example of him and anyone else who fakes studies, abuses children and accepts bribes.
Unsurprisingly, many professors and medical professionals refuse to debate Wakefield, even at his latest speaking engagement on campus. His work has already been discredited, his medical registry revoked and study placed rightly in the dustbin of history, so one might consider the work of any opponent already done-yet two problems remain.
Firstly, arguing with him at this point only legitimizes what is a non-scientific claim that shifts even now as further research is produced to the contrary. Debating Wakefield has the added drawback of strengthening his conspiracy theory; just as staunch believers in extra-terrestrials cite NASA's denial of their existence as more proof of a cover-up, challengers of Wakefield become yet more evidence that the pharmaceutical companies are brainwashing the masses against him.
Secondly, because Wakefield preys on fears of autism and the pain of parents with diagnosed children, his messages still find acceptance among some individuals. For those looking for answers where real research is still slim, Wakefield offers false hope, which is, for the weary and hurting, often very tempting.
Therefore, the most important measure anyone can take against Wakefield is to appear whenever he speaks and at every turn to present the facts of his "science" and its monetary legacy. If we fail to remind every audience who hears Wakefield of the fraud he is guilty of committing, we risk revisitation of earlier times where potentially lethal and disfiguring childhood diseases, like measles, mumps, and rubella, routinely take and destroy lives. After all, every parent who chooses not to vaccinate out of fears about autism places not only their child at risk but also immunocompromised individuals and children too young for their own vaccinations.
Wakefield's theories are no substitute for real science, and his claims are dangerous-possibly fatal. It is my sincere wish that anyone who was momentarily swayed by Wakefield's claims has now rethought their true basis and will place their hopes for the future where they belong: in real, hard science.