Andrew Wakefield is still at it blaming vaccines for autism


Ever since I first became aware of the antivaccine movement more than ten years ago, I’ve had little choice but to periodically pay attention to one of the godfathers of the antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield is the quack whose dubious case series that The Lancet foolishly published in 1998 launched a million antivaccine quacks. Ever since his disgrace, in which he was stripped of his U.K. medical license (or, as the lovely British phrasing goes, he was “struck off”), then later was pushed out by the board of directors at Thoughtful House and had his Lancet paper retracted by its editors, Wakefield has been struggling for relevance, as his less hardcore antivaccine supporters fled from him in droves. Convincingly revealed as a scientific fraud, Andrew Wakefield, who used to be the go-to guy for all things vaccine-autism, can’t get any love from the mainstream press anymore, aside from a a conspiracy loon like Sharyl Attkisson. Sure, Wakefield foolishly tried to sue Brian Deer, the BMJ, and Fiona Godlee (the editor of BMJ) for libel and looks as though he’s going to get his posterior handed to him in court.

Despite his utter irrelevance to anything scientific, I still remain curious to know every now and then what ol’ Andy is up to. Yesterday, thanks to Anne Dachel, the “media editor” of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, I found out that Dr. Andrew Wakefield continues to speak out.

Oh goody.

And what is Andy Wakefield saying as he “speaks out”? We’ll find out in a minute. But first, I note that Dachel reveals that she’s writing a book, which makes me wonder: Is there any antivaccinationist out there yet who hasn’t written a book? Dachel’s is going to be called The Great Autism Cover-Up, and apparently the second chapter is about her delusional fantasy that the media turned Wakefield into some sort of “fall guy” for the autism/vaccine hypothesis. Sorry, Ms. Dachel, but Wakefield did that just fine by himself, no help from the media needed. She also forgets how the British tabloid media built Wakefield up as a hero, trumpeting his unjustified interpretation of his case series as meaning that the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine was associated with “autistic enterocolitis.”

These days, Wakefield is a pathetic figure, living off of past antivaccine glories and the adulation of only the most die hard of his die hard fans. Just see how Dachel gushes over him:

Dr. Wakefield is a hero to the autism community. He does not quit. There are lots of doctors who know what vaccines are really doing to our children, but they remain silent. It takes a special kind of courage to stand by the truth and have your career and your reputation destroyed. Wakefield has been a constant presence at the annual Autism One Conference in Chicago since its beginning and this year’s talk, the Legacy of Vaccine Injury, was empowering for the parents who were there.

While the media continues the pretense that all the science is in and parents should have no fears about vaccinating their children, Wakefield is out there challenging both the claims of vaccine safety and efficacy. And he’s not going away. Despite the fact that, as he said, he’s a “disenfranchised” scientist, he talked about his current work in filmmaking. He’s out to educate parents who are new to the controversy, but none-the-less worried. He has, as he said, “the most extraordinary stories to tell.”

My thought upon reading this passage was, “Oh, great. Wakefield has found another medium to use to spread misinformation and pseudoscience.” Not that he hasn’t already had success, along with his partners in crime, spreading misinformation about vaccines. He even crows about it:

“The pharmaceutical industry has spent $30 billion a year on promoting vaccines. They should have saved their money because they’ve failed. They’ve failed. In a recent poll, U.S. adults who believe vaccines cause autism rose from 18 percent in 2011 to 29 percent today. There’s 33 percent of all parents with children under 18. In polling terms, . . . that is a massive proportion of the American public. In a National Consumer League poll, 76 percent believe that it was their prerogative to decide how and if their children should be vaccinated. And the harder the other side pushes, the more mandates they impose, the more things they take away, such as exemptions, the more they force the people of this country to bow to their will, the more resistance they will meet. And they don’t understand that. They do not get yet that they have wasted their time and money. . . . They’ve paid a fortune to public relations companies.”

Of course, this is nothing more than an appeal to popularity, which is a common logical fallacy. Even if what he said were true, it would not say anything about the scientific correctness of his claims. All it would say is that he and his minions have succeeded in getting people to believe complete nonsense. Of course, Wakefield neglected to note that, although over a quarter of parents believe that some vaccines cause autism but many still say that children should be vaccinated. Depressingly, though, Wakefield isn’t entirely mistaken in his bragging, as only slightly more than half of Americans are sure that vaccines don’t cause autism, although vaccine uptake remains high. What Wakefield also failed to mention is that the media, which once supported (or at least saw no issue with using it to gin up controversy and reporting it as one side of a “tell both sides” fallacy), no longer see things that way. Ever since Wakefield’s disgrace and revelations of scientific fraud, at least from my observations, the scientifically fallacious “tell both sides” (the science and the antivaccine pseudoscience) false balance so beloved of the media is much less common.

And that’s a good thing.

The rest of his talk was a marching list of vaccine fallacies. We’ve heard them all before, such as the claim that there is an “autism epidemic” (although he didn’t use that word). He also used the “natural immunity” trope, in which somehow “natural” immunity is somehow better than immunity from vaccines. He claimed that pertussis is evolving resistance to vaccines, a contention for which the evidence is as yet conflicting. Wakefield is also very bitter:

Wakefield talked about how even peer-reviewed journals don’t get the facts right when they bring up his work and the unique bowel disease he discovered in autistic children. The failure of the medical community is their inability to deal with the real health problems of autistic children. Doctors aren’t asking, “Is this child sick? What ails them? What should I do as a clinician to make them better?” Pediatricians and pediatric gastroenterologists aren’t doing their jobs, according to Wakefield.

“This is utter, utter hypocrisy. …People were deterred from this line of inquiry because they feared what might happen to them. They put themselves before suffering children. Shame on them.”

Nonsense. Doctors do study the real health problems of autistic children. They do ask what ails them. The do ask what they can do to make them better. What they don’t do is to come up with pseudoscientific fear mongering that attributes the cause of autism to something that science has again and again shown not to be correlated with autism. They go where the evidence leads. Wakefield goes where his certainty that vaccines cause autism leads him, which is always the same direction, into quackery.

He also continues to spew the same tired antivaccine tropes, including this:

Wakefield next discussed the staunchly held tenet of medical belief that vaccines, as one of the greatest medical advancements in history, “result in universal benefit.”

He asked, “What if it’s not? What if that’s not true? What if the onset of these problems are so insidious, so widespread, so unexpected, rather like narcolepsy with flu vaccine? Whoever expected that? You’re not just looking for things you know might occur, but you’re looking for things that are completely new, idiosyncratic. Or are you?”

I suppose, then, that things like the VAERS database and the Vaccine Safety Datalink project don’t exist in Wakefield’s view. They’re there, after all, to look for idiosyncratic, “unexpected” reactions and to look for correlations between various conditions and vaccines. Wakefield seems to think that epidemiology can’t find these correlations, but it found the correlation that he harps on, namely the possible correlation between narcolepsy and the Pandemrix monovalent H1N1 flu vaccine. Let’s just say that the question has been investigated, and there appears to be a lot less there than Wakefield would have you believe, although results are still preliminary.

Of course, perhaps the reason that science hasn’t found all these correlations that Wakefield posits is not because of some conspiracy, or because the conditions are so insidious, or because epidemiology can’t find “idiosyncratic” reactions. Perhaps the reason is that there is no correlation, and these idiosyncratic reactions are probably not related to vaccines. None of this, however, stops Wakefield from fear mongering.

Same as it ever was.