In one corner, we have Jenny McCarthy, former Playboy Playmate of the Year, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, and pseudoscience with an extra dose of quackery. In the other corner, we have the Centers for Disease Control, the Institute of Medicine for the National Academy of Sciences, UK’s National Health Service, and the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (what is commonly called the Vaccine Court). The battle is over MMR vaccine, a mixture of three live attenuated viruses administered by injection for immunization against measles, mumps and rubella (formerly known as German measles).
Let’s take a close look at the participants. First, Jenny McCarthy, whose extensive medical and science education includes….not much. In 2005, she announced that her child was diagnosed with autism, a diagnosis about which there is some doubt. McCarthy believes that vaccines caused her son’s autism, although that view is unsupported by any scientific or medical evidence. Her public appearances and statements have increased the public perception of this link, and may have led to decreased immunization rates and increased incidence of measles. McCarthy has stated that chelation therapy helped her son recover from autism. Essentially, McCarthy claims that mercury in vaccines causes autism, which has been rejected by scientific and clinical studies, and that the use of chelation somehow reversed the effects of the “mercury exposure.” In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health has concluded that autistic children will not receive any benefit to balance the risks of cognitive and emotional problems induced by the chelating agents used in this treatment. Really, she should stick to modeling and bad movies.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield is a whole different story. He, and 12 other researchers, published a paper in the British medical journal in 1998, The Lancet, which reported on 12 (yes 12) children with developmental disorders. They linked eight of these children to MMR vaccinations. The paper described several bowel symptoms and the possible link to the vaccine. He even gave a name to the syndrome, autistic enterocolitis. After publication of the paper, confidence in the MMR vaccine fell; pediatricians in the United Kingdom thought the British government was either hiding evidence of the link, or was failing to prove it.
Brian Deer, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London, wrote an article in the British Medical Journal that showed that Dr. Wakefield not only was in error, but probably altered key facts to show a link to autism, and outright fraudulent act. In the meantime, 10 of the 12 original co-authors of the Lancet article retracted their authorship. Then, in early 2010, the Lancet retracted the paper with this statement:
…it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.
Of course, a recent review of studies of the links between vaccines and autism find that there is no scientific support for the link. They concluded:
No credible evidence of an involvement of MMR with either autism or Crohn’s disease was found.
This might be an intellectual or philosophical discussion of science, except for one major problem. Vaccination rates have dropped in the UK, to as low as 85%. In 2006, there were 449 cases of measles in the UK. Before Wakefield’s report, there were only 56 cases in the UK in 1998. In the US, there have been measles and pertussis (whooping cough) outbreaks attributed to the falling vaccination rate (falling from 98% to 92% in a few years).
What worries me is what do we do when a scientist and professional like Andrew Wakefield publishes an article that sets the medical world on its figurative head? The great thing about science is that it is not dogmatic. Researchers moved quickly to understand the link, then to debunk it. And it was a trained journalist, who uncovered the fraud. But the consequences of that one article carries on today. People still think that vaccines cause everything. It doesn’t. Nevertheless, when it comes to medicine and science, we shouldn’t listen to Playboy Playmates.
Go get your children vaccinated. The risk from measles far outweighs the non-risk of autism.