“Interesting times,” thanks to a confluence of anti-vaccine pseudoscience

i-78e66c24c459313220b054737594712b-Wakefield.jpg

An old Chinese combined proverb and curse is said to be, “May you live in interesting times.” Certainly, with respect to vaccines, the last few years have been “interesting times.” Unfortunately, this week times are about to get a lot more “interesting” as the Autism One quackfest descends upon Chicago beginning today. Featuring prominently in this quackfest will be an anti-vaccine rally in Grant Park on Wednesday featuring some really bad, anti-vaccine fundamentalist Poe-worthy “music” and a keynote speech by Andrew Wakefield himself. If you want evidence that Andrew Wakefield is being disingenuous at best and lying through his teeth at worst when he claims he’s not “anti-vaccine,” look no further than his having agreed to give the keynote speech at this rally. One can only hope that the anti-vaccine movement posts YouTube videos of his speech so that I can apply a needed dose of not-so-Respectful Insolence to it.

Interesting times, indeed.

Add to Autism One and the anti-vaccine loon rally the fact that Andrew Wakefield is releasing his book on the whole GMC affair, a book entitled, appropriately enough Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines–The Truth Behind a Tragedy. I say “appropriately enough,” because it’s a play on this passage from the GMC’s ruling on Wakefield’s research misconduct: “You showed a callous disregard for the distress and pain that you knew or ought to have known the children involved might suffer.” Wakefield no doubt thinks that he’s being cheeky and sarcastic by appropriating those words for the title of his book, but the term “callous disregard” fits Wakefield perfectly. In reality, the subtitle of Wakefield’s book should have been Harming Children for Fun and Profit. In any case, look for Wakefield to be promoting the hell out of his book in Chicago among his adoring (and critical thinking-free) fans.

Interesting times, indeed.

Add to all of that the fact that somehow Wakefield scored an interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show this morning. How he pulled that off, who knows? It does, however, perfectly dovetail with Generation Rescue’s and Age of Autism’s propaganda offensive to promote Autism One, as well as Wakefield’s desire to promote his book. More importantly, the confluence of Autism One, its associated anti-vaccine rally, and Wakefield’s interview with Matt Lauer allows the anti-vaccine lunatic fringe to try to distract attention from what is really important about this week, and that is the fact that almost certainly shortly after this post goes live Andrew Wakefield will lose his license to practice medicine in the U.K.

Now those are the kinds of interesting times I’ve waited for for a while.

And Brian Deer is going to be there to report on it, as he describes in an article that appeared yesterday in The Sunday Times entitled Weeping wounds of the MMR scare:

Tomorrow morning, at about 9.30, I’ll stroll down the Euston Road in London and will almost certainly be greeted with screams of abuse.

“Who’s pulling your strings, Brian?” someone will yell above the drone of traffic. “Boooo … yaaahh … liar!”

My furious detractors — mainly women — will, as always, be crammed behind metal barriers just outside the offices of the General Medical Council (GMC). Some will be clutching placards — indeed, I was once hit smartly over the head with one. As well as personal abuse, they will chant slogans: “We’re backing Wakefield … MMR: a jab too far … 1 in 100 children have autism.”

This has been going on at key junctures for nearly three years now — since the GMC began its longest medical misconduct inquiry yet, in July 2007.

I honestly don’t know how Deer does it. I really don’t. He was, more than anyone else, the person most responsible for exposing Andrew Wakefield’s dishonesty, incompetence, and, yes, callous disregard for the children he claims to help. As a result, Wakefield’s groupies routinely heap abuse upon him. Actually, I don’t know how Paul Offit does it, either. He has been at the receiving end of death threats and receives ridiculous amounts of hate mail, to the point where, as he described in his book Autism’s False Prophets, there have been times when he’s required an armed guard, and the University of Pennsylvania routinely checks his mail for suspicious letters and packages. In comparison to what Deer and Offit do and put up with, the occasional broadside from J.B. Handley or bit of hate e-mail seems very mild in comparison.

One thing that Deer’s introduction reminds me of, though, is that, whatever the problems with the GMC hearings on Andrew Wakefield and his cronies, being a “kangaroo court” or a “witch hunt” is not among them, although that is certainly the spin that the anti-vaccine movement is trying to put on them. The hearings went on for two and a half years before its findings were reported. If anything, the GMC was very slow to react to the Wakefield affair, and, in fact, arguably prodded by Andrew Wakefield himself, who was quoted as saying in 2004:

Serious allegations have been made against me in relation to the provision of clinical care for children with autism and bowel disease, and the reporting of their disease. It has been proposed that my role in this matter should be investigated by the GMC. I not only welcome this, I insist on it and I will be making contact with the GMC personally.

Well, Wakefield got what he wanted. It may have taken nearly three years before the GMC started its hearings and then an additional two and a half years for it to investigate, the longest investigation in the history of the GMC, but Wakefield got his chance to clear his name. He failed miserably, and, contrary to the spin being placed on the hearings by Wakefield’s admirers, the GMC was thorough almost to a fault. As a result, very likely today he will lose his license to practice medicine in the U.K.:

Tomorrow, three floors above the street, the mood will be sombre. The inquiry has finally drawn to its conclusion, and Andrew Wakefield — known as “the MMR doctor” — is likely to be struck off the medical register for what the five-member tribunal has already labelled “dishonest”, “unethical” and “callous” research.

In withdrawing his licence to practise, the council will be laying to rest a huge scare that spread rapidly among parents, causing a massive slump in the number of children who were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella in Britain. Two children subsequently died of measles and many others became seriously ill.

Unfortunately, even if the GMC does “strike off” Wakefield, it will be far too little and far too late to make up for the damage he’s done with his incompetent, trial lawyer-funded, and likely fraudulent “research.” Measles, which had in the mid-1990s been declared under control in the U.K., came roaring back to the point where in 2008 it was declared endemic again, all thanks to the anti-MMR hysteria sparked by Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study and Wakefield’s self-promotion and claims that the “single jab” measles vaccine was safer than the MMR (a claim based on zero evidence, not even Wakefield’s Lancet study), all aided and abetted by the sensationalistic and credulous British press. Where is the penalty for the British press other than Brian Deer? Without the scare stories, Wakefield’s myth would not have taken hold, nor would MMR vaccine uptake have plummeted so dramatically across the U.K. The reporters responsible for such deceptive and dishonest journalism will go unscathed.

For the most part, so will Andrew Wakefield. True, the GMC’s initial ruling and its downstream effects, including the retraction of his Lancet paper by the editors and the withdrawal of his “monkey business” study from NeuroToxicology, have resulted in his losing his lucrative position as medical director at the autism quackery clinic Thoughtful House, but he has now taken on the role of persecuted martyr for the cause and written a book. As chief martyr of the anti-vaccine movement, Wakefield will no doubt find a way to land on his feet once again. First, he’ll go on a book tour, where he’ll whine about how untrue all the accusations against him are and how “unfair” the GMC has been to him, even though the GMC has bent over backwards to be fair. After a couple of months of that, he’ll manage to find a position with some anti-vaccine organization or other (my money’s on him becoming Generation Rescue’s “medical director”), although I must admit that it will be hard for even the most well-heeled antivaccine organizations to match the close to $300,000 a year that Wakefield “earned” at Thoughtful House. Sadly (to him), Wakefield might have to take a pay cut. I’m sure he’ll manage to make up the difference, though, through speaking engagement fees to credulous audiences.

In other words, don’t cry for Wakefield, anti-vaccine loons.

Deer also points out something I’ve been saying for a long time, namely that the people most hurt by Wakefield’s activities are autistic children themselves:

Among the worst victims of the MMR scare were the parents who believed Wakefield’s findings — a few of whom will no doubt once again be shouting slogans tomorrow. I feel only compassion for them. Imagine how terrible it must be to believe that your son or daughter’s autism is your own fault, just because you had your child vaccinated.

“In a way, making the connection was worse for us,” said the mother of the youngster referred to as Child 12 in The Lancet. “We had convinced ourselves it was nothing we had done. Now we knew it was our fault.”

Wakefield had offered them answers when no one else could say why the incidence of autism was on the rise. But in the end he brought these parents only more pain.

There are three main sets of victims of Wakefield’s perfidy. First, there are autistic children. I’ve said it time and time again, Wakefield’s “research” can be viewed as the pseudoscience that launched a thousand quacks. I say that because it can be argued that the entire “autism biomed” movement sprung up more as a consequence of Wakefield’s ideas linking the MMR to autism and gut problems in autistic children than any other person’s. As a result, untold numbers of autistic children have been subjected to IVIG, chelation therapy, scads of untested supplements, hyperbaric oxygen, chelation therapy, and a wide variety of other woo in a fruitless attempt to “recover” them. Second, Wakefield’s work and the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement have victimized the parents of these children. As Brian Deer so correctly pointed out, parents who buy into the anti-vaccine line often feel profound guilt, because to believe that vaccines cause autism is to believe that it’s the parents’ fault when a child develops autism. After all, it is the parents who had the child vaccinated. Finally, it is children in general who have been victimized by Wakefield. In the U.K., MMR uptake rates plummeted, and, as I mentioned earlier, measles came roaring back, causing massive unnecessary suffering among children. Herd immunity was seriously compromised, endangering both the vaccinated (given that vaccines are not 100% effective) and unvaccinated children, in particular those who for health reasons can’t be vaccinated and have to rely on herd immunity.

Compared to the damage Wakefield’s done, he’s lucky that all the GMC can do to him is to strike him off.

ADDENDUM: It looks as though the anti-vaccine attacks have begun. For instance, take a look at what Ann Dachel, Propaganda–I mean Media–Editor for Age of Autism writes in the comments:

Brian Deer has nothing new to say here. According to him, Dr. Wakefield is a fraud who misled parents. Vaccines are safe and they don’t cause autism.

Correct. Wakefield is a fraud, and vaccines don’t cause autism, as far as science can tell. This may not be a “new” message, but apparently it needs to be repeated again and again.

Attacking and discrediting Andrew Wakefield will hardly make this controversy go away. In the U.S., tens of thousands of parents who never heard of Dr. Wakefield have been saying for years that their child was healthy and normally progressing until they received certain routine vaccinations. Suddenly, they stopped talking and began to show the symptoms of autism.

Unfortunately, it is true that taking away Andrew Wakefield’s medical license, no matter how much he deserves it, won’t make this manufactroversy go away. Of course, what Ann neglects to mention is that Generation Rescue and Age of Autism guarantee that by continuing to stoke the manufactroversy, no matter how much science shows them to be dead wrong.

The press likes to pretend that this debate is just about the science. Health officials and the medical community have a united response to the question of vaccines and autism: OUR STUDIES SHOW NO LINK. Parents are wrong. No one likes to talk about the obviously fact that officials and doctors have everything at stake in this debate. After all, if it’s clearly shown that an unchecked, unsafe vaccine schedule is behind the epidemic increase in autism, someone–lots of people actually–will be held responsible. A lot of people have everything at stake in this fight.

Ah, yes, the same old, same old. Large epidemiological studies that show no link between vaccines and autism must be wrong because the investigators are in the pocket of big pharma. Well, Wakefield was in the pocket of a trial lawyer who wanted to sue vaccine companies for “vaccine injury” leading to autism. But Wakefield’s on the side of angels to true believers like Dachel. She’s also really good at misdirection. Not Jamy Ian Swiss-good or as good as other talented close-up magicians, but pretty darned good:

Brian Deer neatly ignores the fact that a disabled generation of autistic children is also soon to descend on the taxpayers of Britain as dependent adults. Since Deer is so convinced that vaccines haven’t caused all the autism, maybe he’d like to look into any other likely universal trigger. So far, no one has been able to suggest what it might be. And maybe Deer would like to tell the people of Britain how they’ll support and care for thousands of autistic adults for the rest of their long lives.

In other words, we have no evidence that vaccines cause autism, but we fervently believe it. If you tell us vaccines don’t cause autism based on the science that says, well, that they don’t, we will stick our fingers in our ears and refuse to believe you unless you can prove to us that it’s another “universal trigger” in the environment. Then we’ll throw up the issue of how to pay for the support of autistic adults (many of whom, Dachel conveniently neglects to mention are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves and being productive members of society) as a smokescreen to hide the fact that we don’t have any good scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism.

Perhaps the most hilarious comment comes from Maurine Meleck:

I watched a video of Deer one day on his way into the GMC, surrounded by mothers with vaccine injured children who believe in Dr. Wakefield. All Mr. Deer did and still does is talk over everyone else as if he has something to say when if you listen closely, he is saying nothing at all of any meaning. That’s his way of trying to silence everyone, but it won’t work.

All I can say to Ms. Meleck is: Pot. Kettle. Black. Oh, and you owe me a new irony meter, because your remark just incinerated mine. Talking over their opponents with vacuous nonsense is exactly how the anti-vaccine movement tries to address criticism.