I’ve never heard of a medical journal, let alone a prestigious one, calling a researcher an outright fraud. But earlier this year that’s what a three-part exposé in the British journal BMJ called Andrew Wakefield because of his small 1998 “study” that first set off widespread fears that childhood vaccines cause autism. Actually, I think he should be considered a murderer, since the panic he incited led an untold number of parents to refuse to have their children immunized. As a result, some of these children became seriously ill, and some died.
The Lancet, which published Wakefield’s paper, finally retracted it last year, saying it was seriously flawed. But as the BMJ articles made clear, this was a deliberate, “elaborate fraud,” done for financial gain (Wakefield was paid by a lawyer planning to sue vaccine makers) and involving unethical treatment of children.
There is absolutely no scientific support for the notion that vaccines cause autism. This wild goose chase has diverted energy and resources that could have been spent seeking the real causes of autism. Vaccination teaches the immune system to defend itself against disease. Of all medical miracles, it may be the greatest, having saved millions of lives and prevented immeasurable suffering and disability. People forget the toll childhood diseases took as recently as the 1950s. Thanks to vaccination, the incidence of the leading childhood diseases in the U.S. is at an all-time low. Smallpox, polio, diphtheria and measles are only some of the killers and cripplers that can be prevented by vaccination. Smallpox has been completely wiped out, and polio may be the next to vanish. Now there are also vaccines that help prevent cervical and liver cancer and shingles.
But those achievements are at risk because of Wakefield and other anti-vaccine crusaders. In a survey last year, about one in four parents said that vaccines can cause autism, and one in nine said they had refused at least one recommended vaccine for their children. All sorts of unfounded rumors about vaccines abound, especially on the Internet.
Failure to immunize is risky not only for the individual. It takes just a few unvaccinated people to endanger entire communities, as has been seen with some potentially deadly outbreaks of measles here and in other countries where the virus was virtually eradicated a decade ago.
The BMJ exposé should close the door on this scare, but of course it won’t, since Internet rumors never die, and some anti-vaccine zealots will never be convinced. But if you have any remaining doubts about vaccines, or have a friend or family member who refuses vaccination, I recommend The Panic Virus, a new book by Seth Mnookin. It offers a rich, clear-headed, highly readable defense of vaccination—tracing its history from the smallpox vaccine more than two centuries ago through the aftermath of the Wakefield debacle. I hope it becomes a bestseller and inoculates people against vaccinophobia.