Someone didn’t nail the coffin shut: Andrew Wakefield returns to the public eye

He’s baa-aack.

You knew he couldn’t stay gone for long, I’m sure. He’s just like the zombie who rises again just as the hero turns his back, thinking the zombie dead, or the blond terrorist in Die Hard who appeared to have met his end hanging from a chain only to appear later in the movie, just when it looks as though it’s all over and Bruce Willis has triumphed, to try to take a shot at him. That’s right. I’m referring to the anti-vaccine quack whose trial lawyer-funded, incompetent, and probably fraudulent research launched a thousand autism quacks looking to “cure” autism “vaccine injury.”

Yep. Andy Wakefield’s back, a mere month and a half after his ignominious departure from Thoughtful House at the hands of its board of directors, led, ironically enough, by the heiress of the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune who helped found that den of quackery with Wakefield. Before that, the General Medical Council (the U.K.’s equivalent to a state medical board, only for the whole country) had found proved three dozen charges against Wakefield, including four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts involving the abuse of developmentally-challenged children; 11 counts of “high risk” research performed without ethical approval; 9 counts of carrying out research that was contrary to the children’s clinical interests; three counts of having children undergo lumbar punctures that were not clinically indicated; and three of Wakefield ordering medical tests without the necessary qualifications to do so and in breach of his non-clinical employment contract. In spite of all these damning findings, you didn’t think Wakefield would stay gone for very long, did you? It hasn’t yet become clear what new woo he’s ultimately going to end up doing, although I have no doubt it will be every bit as harmful as the anti-vaccine woo he’s engaged in since 1998. It has, however, become clear that Wakefield is really, really good at playing the martyr, as this statement by him posted on that den of anti-vaccine iniquity Age of Autism demonstrates. His first whine makes the fallacious argument that, just because no parent has complained about him, the General Medical Council of Britain must be “persecuting” him for another reason other than enforcing the law:

On Wednesday April 7th, General Medical Council (GMC) lawyers will demand that I and likely two other doctors involved in the MMR-autism case should be erased from the UK’s medical register, removing our license to practice medicine. Doctors’ regulators have found the three of us – Professor John Walker-Smith, Professor Simon Murch and me – guilty of undertaking research on children with autism without approval from an ethics committee.
We can prove, with extensive documentary evidence, that this conclusion is false.

Let me make it absolutely clear that, at its heart, the GMC hearing has been about the protection of MMR vaccination policy. The case has been driven by an agenda to crush dissent that in my opinion serves the government and the pharmaceutical industry — not the welfare of children. It’s important to note that there has never been a complaint against any of the doctors by any parent involved in this case — only universal parental support and gratitude.

…all of which is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if the parents didn’t complain about him. It really doesn’t. Not one whit. As was copiously documented by the GMC, Wakefield’s conduct in carrying out the research upon which his infamous 1998 Lancet “study” was irresponsible and dishonest. Numerous instances of violations of research ethics and various other malfeasance were documented in excruciating detail. Given that human subjects research protections are supposed to apply universally and that children are considered a special class of vulnerable human subjects for whom special protections have been put in place. Wakefield didn’t get proper ethical approval for parts of his study; he subjected children to medically unnecessary invasive procedures like colonoscopy and lumbar puncture; and joked about children passing out when he drew their blood at a party after offering them £5 so that he could get blood samples from normal children. That’s while I’ll repeat it yet again in the vain hope that it will register in the feeble brains of apologists for Andrew Wakefield: It doesn’t matter whether the parents complained about Wakefield’s conduct or not. It doesn’t matter.

The other load of crap that Wakefield drops is his claim that the GMC hearing is about protecting the MMR program and “crushing dissent.” According to Wakefield, only he and his buddies care about the children. (Won’t you all think about the children?) Only he is standing up to the evil pharmaceutical industry to keep it from giving your child autism with toxic vaccines. At least, so goes the Brave Maverick Doctor myth that he very much wants you to believe. It’s all the government–
The Man–keeping you down! It’s all about pharmaceutical companies wanting to sell lots of vaccines, even if it makes thousands of kids autistic. At least, that’s what Andrew Wakefield apparently wants you to believe, and, not surprisingly, the merry band of anti-vaccine zealots over at AoA are more than happy to lap up every last bit of B.S. that Wakefield plops right on their heads, and Wakefield drops a load worthy of an elephant:

Our only “crime” in this matter has been to listen to the concerns of parents, act according to the demands of our professional training, and provide appropriate care to this neglected population of children. It is unthinkable that at the end of an unimpeachable career, Professor Walker-Smith would even consider unethical experimentation on children under his care.

No, nothing is “unthinkable,” particularly if one falls in with a bad crowd or under the baleful influence of a young (at the time) and enthusiastic investigator who looks as though he may be going somewhere, as Wakefield did back in the 1990s. Maybe he didn’t fully realize what he was getting into; maybe he didn’t realize the depths of Wakefield’s flouting of research ethics. Parts of the GMC ruling point out that he had shared responsibility and that he couldn’t be blamed for something that was outside of his knowledge but still found him responsible for lapses. Indeed, it wrote this about the Simon-Walker in the case of one child:

The Panel accepts that at the time of Child 2’s admission in September 1996, you could not have known about the conditions of ethical approval, which were set out in a letter dated 7 January 1997 to you from the Ethics Committee, acknowledged by you on 9 January 1997.

But, hey, when busted for your misdeeds after 12 years, cry martyr. I will admit that he says only one thing that appears truthful in the entire statement, namely that his colleagues suffered “collateral” damage. To me that sounds about right. They made the mistake of trusting Wakefield and working with him. Now they’re paying the price. One could argue whether or not they should have realized something was wrong and about when they should have realized it, but sooner or later they should have figured it out. Wakefield’s theme song should be Warren Zevon’s “Poor Poor Pitiful Me,” because he sure can lay on the self-pity and play the victim:

The loss of my own medical license is, unfortunately, the cost of doing business. Although I do not take this loss lightly, the suffering – so much of it unnecessary – that I have seen among those affected by this devastating disease makes the professional consequences for me a small price to pay by comparison.

As long as a question mark remains over vaccine safety; as long as a safety-first vaccine policy is subordinate to profit and self-interest; as long as the benefits of vaccines are threatened by those who have compromised public confidence by denial of vaccine damage, and as long as these children need help; I will continue my work.

That’s what I’m afraid of.

Not surprisingly, Wakefield is playing the Galileo gambit to its fullest, as he has done since the GMC proceedings started in 2007. At the time, he referred to the GMC proceedings as a “Stalinist” campaign to ruin his reputation and likened himself to Václav Havel, a playwright turned political activist in Czechoslovakia who spent several terms in prison for his political activities opposing the Soviet-style Communist government in the 1970s and 1980s and ultimately played a major role in the Velvet Revolution of 1989 that led to the bloodless overthrow of Communism. At the time I thought that all that praise from anti-vaccine loons had gone to his head. Still, it’s much easier to see dark conspiracies everywhere than to admit that you’ve done wrong, particularly if you’re Andrew Wakefield. So it’s no surprise that he’s trotting out the same old tired tropes about the government and big pharma keeping The Truth from The People, maaaan!

Of course, none of this is anything new. It’s the same conspiracy-laden bilge that he’s been pouring on the U.K. since 1998.

Unfortunately, it’s not all. A couple of days before, in “honor” of World Autism Day, a video by Alan Golding in which Andrew Wakefield was interviewed about his predicament was released, to be promoted by–surprise! surprise!–Age of Autism:

It’s 30 minutes of Andrew Wakefield whining about how persecuted he is, starting out with an attack on Brian Deer, the investigative journalist whose findings in a blockbuster report he filed in 2004 raised all sorts of questions aobut ethical violations by Wakefield in the course of his “research.” Fortunately, Brian Deer has seen the video and produced a version that I much prefer, which parses many of Wakefield’s more–shall we say?–colorful claims:

Brian Deer was also kind enough to elaborate in the comments of Kevin Leitch’s blog, particularly how Wakefield’s pursuit of the measles component of the MMR as a cause of “autistic enterocolitis” likely screwed parents who might have had legitimate claims to vaccine injury due to Immravax and Pluserix, both of which had higher rates than acceptable of meningitis:

I really hope this video is seen by people who know Wakefield. People like Richard Barr, and all those who were involved in the years of painful litigation in the UK, and those whose hopes were similarly raised and dashed in the US.

One of the most moving and pitiable moments in the UK litigation was when, after the measles theory collapsed and the claimaints’ lawyers told the Legal Services Commission that, as the evidence stood, they couldn’t make the case that MMR causes autism, many of the families were simply bewildered. Really bewildered more than angry.

And there was a strange moment when they started saying, “well, what about Urabe, can’t we sue over Immravax and Pluserix?”. And counsel for one of the drug companies stood up in court and said, essentially, “Well, you did.” The claimants lawyers had spent all their money on what Wakefield had told them: how it was all measles virus in the gut, opioid peptides and so forth, which was just made up in early 1997. “Too late, mate,” was pretty much the industry position. And then, of course, the US cases went down the same track… to disaster.

I think possibly all of the lead eight cases in the UK, or at least the large majority, were children who had received Pluserix or Immravax. But they had sued on the measles virus mechanism. That’s the one Wakefield held patents on, and which he was researching to see if it caused Crohn’s disease.

Andrew Wakefield’s laywer-driven, incompetent, and very likely fraudulent research has done enormous harm. First, aided and abetted by a credulous and sensationalist British press, Wakefield sparked a hysteria over the MMR vaccine that led vaccination rates to plummet throughout the U.K. far below what is necessary for herd immunity, with predictable results. Measles came roaring back to the point where it is now endemic again. Unfortunately, the hysteria crossed the pond, and, although it’s fortunately much less of a fear in the U.S. than it is in the U.K., there are pockets of low vaccine uptake, as documented yesterday in an excellent NPR story about how parents’ vaccine fears are leading to a resurgence of measles in North America.

Pointing out that a couple of generations ago, up to 4 million U.S. children got measles every year, hundreds died, and thousands were left with permanent brain damage, it emphasizes that those days are gone, thanks to vaccines. Particularly interesting are two events mentioned in the story. First, thanks to the influx of international visitors to Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, British Columbia is suffering an outbreak of an Asian strain of the measles, half in a large household of vaccine refuseniks. In San Diego, the measles outbreak in 2008 due to a child who traveled to Switzerland, where vaccination rates have also plummeted below herd immunity levels, caused far more problems than just the children who became ill:

Once they found out, health authorities kicked into gear, tracing everybody who came into contact with the first cases — and everybody who was in contact with them. That net captured people who got exposed (and, in some instances, infected) at supermarkets, circus performances, fairgrounds and a Hawaii-bound airplane.

It added up to 839 people. Of those, 73 were unvaccinated children — 25 whose parents chose not to get them vaccinated, and 48 children under 12 months who were too young to be vaccinated.

To limit the spread of the virus, San Diego County officials asked parents of those 73 children to keep them at home. Many of them were pretty unhappy about that.

“Imagine, you start off on a normal day,” Waters says, “and you’re getting ready to drop your child off at their child care place, and you’re greeted by a public health nurse who says your child has been exposed to measles, and we’d like you to go home and be there for the next three weeks while we monitor you for symptoms.”

Parents of exposed children who believed in vaccination were incredulous and angry, she says: “They said, ‘What do you mean, people don’t get vaccinated? Why is this happening?'”

One big reason is Andrew Wakefield. His anti-vaccine fear mongering spread throughout the U.K., jumped the Channel to Europe, and metastasized to the United States. Now that it’s hear, it’s spread by a bubble-brained comedienne and ex-model and her actor boyfriend, supported by an organization of anti-vaccine propagandists fronted by an investment banker. Thanks to them and the fear of vaccines spread by their words and actions, more and more pockets of low vaccine uptake rates are appearing, particularly in states like California and even more particularly in areas of high affluence where highly educated parents are prone to thinking that their high level of training and achievement in one area qualify them to evaluate vaccine safety.

With the help of Andrew Wakefield’s “studies,” helpfully “interpreted” by Generation Rescue.

Tomorrow, April 7, the GMC will decide whether to recommend that Andrew Wakefield be “struck off” the list of licensed physicians in the U.K. (I love British phrases like this one–so appropriate.) If, as expected, the GMC does recommend that Wakefield be stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. and the panel later agrees, it will be the end of one long and particularly painful chapter of an even longer and painfully sordid story. Unfortunately, as one chapter ends, no doubt another will begin, and the story will go on. I don’t know for sure where Wakefield will finally end up, but you can be sure he’ll find some new place to practice his autism woo.

After my post yesterday, my money’s increasingly on Tijuana. In the meantime, enjoy Wakefield’s theme song: