I want to thank Dan Olmsted, the editor of Age of Autism. I think.
Why do I say this? After all, Olmsted is the managing editor of perhaps the most wretched hive of antivaccine scum and quackery that I am aware of. However, he’s actually done me a favor. You see, the other day, the instigator of the U.K. anti-MMR wing of the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield, posted a video to YouTube because he’s really feeling some serious butthurt right now:
Basically, it’s Andrew Wakefield complaining about being blamed for an ongoing measles outbreak in South Wales. Of course, given that, if there’s one person most responsible for causing MMR uptake in the U.K. to tank, it’s arguably Andrew Wakefield. Yes, it’s true that he didn’t do it alone. Unfortunately, he had lots of help. In particular, he had the help of Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet who, for reasons known only to himself, decided to publish Wakefield’s crappy little case series of 12 children who were presented as evidence of a potential link between the MMR vaccine and bowel problems in autistic children in 1998. Then there was the U.K. press, which ate the story up and conspired in playing up the possibility of the MMR vaccine somehow causing or contributing to autism. then, of course, there’s the U.K. contingent of the antivaccine movement, which latched on to Wakefield’s fraudulent “science” as support for its general belief that vaccines are evil. Worse, Wakefield himself appears to have loved the attention he got as the “brave maverick doctor” who found something that The Man didn’t want him to find. Never mind that he was in the pay of a trial lawyer suing vaccine manufacturers when he did his Lancet series, as has been amply documented by Brian Deer. In the U.K. and, to a lesser extent, in the U.S., Wakefield has become a major nidus upon which antivaccine parents latch in their social networks trying to convince new parents not to vaccinate.
So why am I “thanking” Dan Olmsted? Easy. He published the transcript of Wakefield’s whiny wankfest above, so that I don’t have to watch the entire thing. Watching Wakefield’s slimy, self-serving, disingenuous verbal prestidigitation for more than a couple of minutes quite literally gives me a barfy feeling in the pit of my stomach. And for that, I think Olmsted. Of course, reading the transcript of Wakefield’s slimy, self-serving, disingenuous verbal prestidigitation is almost as bad, but at least I don’t have to look at Wakefield’s shifty visage and listen to that smug, self-satisfied voice.
Wakefield begins by saying that, really and truly, it’s not his fault that there’s been an outbreak of measles in South Wales. Don’t pay attention to the government, which apparently did link the massive decline in MMR uptake that occurred beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “Don’t blame me,” Wakefield says (I’m paraphrasing). “Don’t blame me for measles outbreaks because I whipped up a fake scare and riding it to fame and infamy.”
No, Wakefield says, blame the government because it didn’t listen to me and offer the single measles vaccine instead of the triple vaccine for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR):
So, what happened subsequently. At that time the single measles vaccine, the single vaccines were available freely on the National Health Service. Otherwise, I would not have suggested that option. So parents, if they were legitimately concerned about the safety of MMR could go and get the single vaccines. Six months later the British government unilaterally withdrew the importation licence for the single vaccines therefore depriving parents of having these on the NHS; depriving parents who had legitimate concerns about the safety of MMR from a choice; denying them the opportunity to protect their children in the way that they saw fit.
And I was astonished by this and I said to Dr Elizabeth Miller of the Health Protection Agency why would you do this, if your principal concern is to protect children from serious infectious disease. Why would you remove an option from parents who are legitimately concerned about the safety of MMR. And her answer was extraordinary. She said to me if we allow parents the option of single vaccines it would destroy our MMR programme. In other words her concern, her principal concern seemed to be for protection of the MMR programme and not for protection of children.
Now, were parents concerns about the safety of MMR legitimate? Did they have a reason to be concerned? The answer is unequivocably yes.
Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! There have been large, well-designed epidemiological studies that have failed to find even a hint of a whiff of a correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism. In fact, of all the antivaccine “hypotheses” in which vaccines cause autism, the one that has arguably been the most thoroughly refuted by cold, hard evidence is the link between MMR and autism claimed by Wakefield and his acolytes. Indeed, as Dr. Michael Fitzgerald points out, vaccination rates plummeted as a result of the Wakefield-inspired antivaccine hysteria, leading the measles, which had been almost eliminated in Britain, to come roaring back to endemic levels by 2008. Of course, Wakefield’s attempt to weasel out of the blame that so rightly falls on his shoulder involves pointing out that MMR uptake rates have recovered and are now above 90% The problem with that retort is that there is now a large cohort of older children who were infants and toddlers around the time of the MMR scare who were never vaccinated against the measles. They are now vulnerable to the highly contagious measles virus. Herd immunity, which was degraded by the decline in MMR vaccine uptake due to the MMR-autism scare, is still degraded, as vaccine uptake has only just recovered to acceptable levels.
So let’s consider Wakefield’s self-serving, self-centered “logic,” such as it is. To him, it’s not his fault that there was an MMR scare. Never mind that there was no science behind his claims. Never mind that there was no evidence to support his claim that the MMR triple vaccine is dangerous and that the “single jab” measles vaccine was safer. As Matt Carey puts it:
Well, 15 years ago Mr. Wakefield’s team at the Royal Free Hospital released a paper which suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Mr. Wakefield did much more than suggest a link. At the press conference for the paper’s release (note that very few papers have press conferences) Mr. Wakefield called for the suspension of the MMR vaccine in favor of single measles, mumps and rubella vaccines. He didn’t really explain why the single vaccine would be more safe in his mind, making it very difficult for parents to accept how the single vaccines were, in his faulty opinion, safe.
Mr. Wakefield’s current logic has it that it is the government’s fault for not allowing the importation of single vaccines. Ignore the unfounded fear that Mr. Wakefield created about measles vaccines, he asks. Blame the government. Sure the government can take some blame (anyone recall when the prime minister refused to answer whether his family used the MMR?). As does the press. But without Andrew Wakefield and his faulty assertions, there would have been no scare.
Now here comes the hilarious part. Those of you who’ve been regular readers know one characteristic that many cranks share, one tactic that many of them like to fall back on when they are feeling cornered. Do you know what it is? (No fair telling if you already know, having either already watched this video or heard about it on other blogs!) When I saw this part of the video, I couldn’t help but think of the famous scene from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, when Kirk informs Khan, “Here it comes,” except that, instead of using photon torpedos Wakefield uses bollocks as ammunition (as Tim Minchin would put it).
So here it comes:
What I’m suggesting is a formal scientific debate in public in front of an audience that is televised. And specifically Dr David Salisbury I would like to debate you because I believe you are at the heart of this matter. I believe the decisions taken by you and by your committee, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, lie at the heart of this matter.
There are many things to debate with you.
Sure there are…if you’re an antivaccine crank like Wakefield. If you’re a scientist or physician practicing science-based medicine, not so much.
So what is it about cranks and their demands for “public debates”? They especially like “televised public debates,” as Wakefield called for right now. I know I’ve asked this question many times before, but it’s a legitimate question. Cranks love public debates, and they love to challenge their perceived foes to such spectacles. Wakefield is a crank; so it’s not at all surprising that he would resort to this tactic. The reasons are obvious to those of us who are familiar with the techniques of the crank: They can Gish gallop to their hearts’ content, weaving and bobbing, zig-zagging hither, thither, and yon among cherry picked studies, evidence, and other data. This is not the first time he’s done this, either. It was only a few days ago that he posted an offer “to debate any serious challenger on MMR vaccine safety and the role of MMR in autism, live, in public, and televised.” Oh goody. I can hardly wait. Of course, as I’ve pointed out many times before, “live public debates” are singularly uninformative and almost always favor the crank or quack, which is precisely why cranks love them so.
Amusingly, if Wakefield really wanted such a public debate, he could probably have it. For instance, Michael Fitzgerald, a physician with an autistic child, has said that he would debate Wakefield. In fact, Fitzgerald even describes how serious Wakefield is when he calls for “public debates.” The answer is, not surprisingly, not serious at all:
The only occasion when Dr Wakefield has engaged in any debate on British TV came in the discussion following the broadcast of the hagiographical docudrama Hear the Silence in December 2003. Flanked by his US acolytes Jeffrey Bradstreet and Arthur Krigsman, and parent supporters, Dr Wakefield appeared assertive and defensive in response to challenges from Evan Harris (then a Liberal Democrat MP) and myself. Wakefield has subsequently restricted his public appearances to conferences of sympathetic parents, anti-vaccination activists and promoters of quack autism therapies. When I asked him a question from the floor at one such conference in Bournemouth in February 2007, he simply refused to answer, deferring to another platform speaker. When I offered to debate with him at a follow-up conference in March 2009, the organisers refused.
Does anyone think that anything different will happen. Wakefield chooses to challenge someone who he knows can’t or won’t agree to such a spectacle to a debate, safe in the knowledge that there’s no way he’ll actually have to debate. Then, when someone who knows his stuff tries to call Wakefield’s bluff and get him to debate, Wakefield makes like brave, brave Sir Robin.
Same as it ever was.