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Vaccine fear-mongering has muffled legitimate research on vaccine safety

REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah Ali Al Mahdi
“There’s not the kind of open discussion we used to have,” a vaccine researcher told Reuters health reporter Kate Kelland. “You’re afraid you will lose your whole career if you say something bad. When you’re dealing with vaccine it suddenly becomes like working in politics, or religion.”

It’s been 15 years since the former British physician Andrew Wakefield launched his now thoroughly discredited fear-mongering campaign against the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. His 1998 paper suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine and autism was debunked (no other reputable studies could duplicate his findings) and retracted by the Lancet, the journal that published it.

Wakefield was also stripped of his medical license for “dishonest,” “misleading,” and “irresponsible actions,” which included taking blood samples from children without their parents’ knowledge, manipulating data, and failing to disclose his financial interests in a vaccine that would have been in direct competition with the MMR.

Sadly, however, Wakefield’s legacy remains with us — and not only because of the large number of parents whose refusal to give their children vaccines has led to a resurgence in the incidence of measles, whooping cough and other preventable childhood diseases.

In fact, right now, Britain is in the midst of a serious measles epidemic. Some 750 cases of the disease, including dozens that have required hospitalization, have been reported in an area around Swansea, Wales. Health officials say the disease is spreading, and they expect those numbers to climb significantly, given that 40,000 children in Wales alone have not received the MMR vaccine.

In 1998, only 56 cases of measles were reported in all of Britain.

But, as Reuters health reporter Kate Kelland points out in a recent article, Wakefield’s vaccine fear-mongering has had another disturbing repercussion — this time on scientists who uncover legitimate concerns about vaccines.

‘Like working in politics, or religion’

One of those scientists is the Finnish neurologist Dr. Markku Partinen, who discovered that the H1N1 swine flu vaccine, Pandemrix, appeared to raise the risk of narcolepsy in children and teenagers. He had great difficulty finding a journal that would publish those findings.

“His story underscores an increasingly tough challenge for scientists balancing compelling data with public concern over vaccines and their side effects,” writes Kelland. “Treatments which stimulate immunity to disease are highly controversial. In the past couple of decades — especially after [Wakefield], … the field has become even more charged. After the false alarm sounded by [Wakefield], some scientists say they are more hesitant to credit reports of potential side effects from vaccines.”

“Wakefield has done so much damage,” Partinen told Kelland. “We’ve see it with all these anti-vaccine people, and now we also see the damage he has done to science.”

“There’s not the kind of open discussion we used to have,” another vaccine researcher told Kelland. “You’re afraid you will lose your whole career if you say something bad. When you’re dealing with vaccine it suddenly becomes like working in politics, or religion.”

Partinen’s study was finally published in the open-access journal PLoS One in 2012. Since then, many other scientists have replicated his findings (unlike with Wakefield’s research), and the vaccine’s use has now been restricted.

Understanding risk

As Kelland also points out in her article, “people find it hard to balance” health risks, including — or perhaps especially, thanks to Wakefield — those involving vaccines.

For example, some 30 million doses of Pandemrix were distributed during the 2009-2010 H1N1 flu pandemic. Swedish health authorities have determined that Pandemrix may have been responsible for 3.6 additional cases of narcolepsy per 100,000 people vaccinated.

Yet the H1N1 was a particularly deadly strain of influenza, taking the lives of 336 children in the United States alone during the 2009-2010 flu season.

“Vaccines are medical products,” Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician and infectious disease expert at the University of Pennsylvania (and a leading critic of the anti-vaccine movement), told Kelland. “They have a benefit and — like any product that has a benefit — they could also have a risk. But from the public’s standpoint it’s difficult. For them, any risk is a bad thing.”

You’ll find Kelland’s article on the Reuter’s website.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Nancy Hokkanen on 04/16/2013 - 01:59 pm.

    Vaccine injuries remain unstudied, untreated, unprevented

    Consumers would be less skeptical of vaccination if the CDC, physicians and industry would stop treating vaccine injury victims like roadkill. Would journalists let Toyota get away with sudden acceleration problems in “just a small minority” of its vehicles?

    MinnPost and other MSM promote investigation into the U of M’s Markingson research abuse case, yet these same reporters have a huge blind spot when it comes to vaccine research. Journalists seem to feel that a percentage of acceptable losses is just fine… as long as it’s a rhetorical intangible rather than a personal reality.

    Documented evidence abounds (including an incriminating trail of emails) clearly showing malfeasance in vaccine/autism epi research; parents felt compelled to file the CDC FOIA requests because journalists refused.

    Here is a copy of the lawsuit filed against Merck by former researchers alleging mumps vaccine research fraud.

    Let everyone who believes vaccine research is ethically spotless be the first in line as experiment test subjects. Perhaps that would result in more weeding out of the bad apples in vaccine research, e.g. Thorsen, Verstraeten, DeStefano, whose acceptance of mediocrity as public policy is the real problem.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/16/2013 - 03:13 pm.

      Did you even read the article?

      If you want better vaccine research, stop promoting criminals like Andrew Wakefield. This isn’t about malfeasance or mediocrity. Wakefield is a fraud and a liar who was stripped of his medical license. If you are unwilling to accept that there is and never has been a proven link between vaccines and autism, you have no business criticizing anyone else’s research.

  2. Submitted by PJ Carroll on 04/16/2013 - 05:17 pm.

    Fear of career destruction has stifled honest vaccine research

    Susan Perry and her ilk never pass up a chance to quote the world’s best-known vaccine salesman, Paul Offit, while failing to mention that he makes millions of dollars pushing his rotavirus vaccine.

    Offit makes the vague statement “they could also have a risk” regarding vaccines, knowing full well his own vaccine has killed at least one child and caused a horribly painful condition called intussusception in many others. Intussusception is a disorder where the intestine turns inside out and begins to fold in on itself like a collapsing telescope.

    And no vaccine piece by Susan Perry would be complete without her usual attempts to slam Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Ms. Perry knows full well that a high court judge threw out the complete GMC ruling against Dr. Wakefield’s partner, Professor John Walker-Smith over a year ago. Those armed with a longer attention span and better critical thinking skills can read the decision here:

    If the very real syndrome of vaccine-induced inflammatory bowel disease had been investigated thoroughly 15 years ago, as it should have been, maybe honest researchers wouldn’t today be afraid of discovering and revealing inconvenient truths about vaccine damage.

    • Submitted by Boris Ogon on 04/17/2013 - 10:51 pm.

      It is rather amusing that two comments relying upon Clifford Miller’s “Child Health Safety” blog have been posted in short order. (One may additionally note that Miller is Wakefield’s “foreign counsel” in his vexatious Texas libel suit against the BMJ and Brian Deer.)

      Here we have the Walker-Smith angle (which may be due to Miller’s collaborator, John Stone). It should be noted that Walker-Smith had his sanction lifted by, in effect, throwing Wakefield under the bus, stating that he was not informed that his actions were part of a research protocol. In addition, it was clearly stated in Justice Mitting’s judgment that “There is now no respectable body of opinion which supports [Wakefield’s] hypothesis, that MMR vaccine and autism/enterocolitis are causally linked.”

      The previous one is to the Chatom class action against Merck, which is merely a restatement of the False Claims Act suit brought by former employees Stephen Krahling and Joan Wlochowski, who stand to personally make a bundle as relators in the case. Their allegations were investigated for two years by the FDA, which found that there was no there there, and the DOJ declined to join their action.

      For an example of the typical care given by Miller to his CHS “analyses,” one could do worse than to start here:

  3. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/16/2013 - 07:02 pm.


    First of all, its not Dr. Wakefield. His medical license was taken away and has not been reinstated. He remains unable to practice medicine, not that he was doing that anyway.

    I actually read the link you provided, and the reason that Walker-Smith got his license back was that they could not prove that he was guilty of the transgressions that Wakefield was guilty of. The article indicates that Walker-Smith tried to distance himself from Wakefield’s conclusion even early on. Wakefield lost his license because he was conducting experiments on children without consent of their parents. Walker-Smith was involved, but may have been actually treating the children, and not just exploiting them for monetary gain like Wakefield was.

    The idea that giving Walker-Smith his license back somehow exonerates Wakefield is either just appallingly dishonest or demonstrates a near-complete lack of reading comprehension. Did you actually read the link? Again, the guy disagreed with Wakefield. He got off because he did NOT do what Wakefield did.

  4. Submitted by Ward Minion on 04/17/2013 - 10:31 am.

    Dr. Wakefield is a symptom of the reporting problem, not cause.

    I did not leave a title for previous post so will re-submit.
    Obviously, scientists in the vaccine research field feel stifled by working in a biased framework that does intimidate doctors from reporting side effects. Dr. partinen’s blaming Dr. wakefield for hesitancy to report such concerns may in part be a reference to that and a cry for help by Dr. Partinen. We see this in Canada too, recently for climate change scientists, which has been brought to the attention of the federal gov’t. it has to be said, too, that this neurologist and others need to act with integrity and report concerns nonetheless. As for Dr. Offit stating that “any risk for the public is a bad thing” he should remember that vaccines are theoretically (and certainly in vaccine safety trials!) given to healthy subjects and so they should have a higher burden of safety!!

  5. Submitted by Carolyn McKyle on 04/17/2013 - 12:38 pm.

    When you see vaccine injury happen to your child . . .

    you won’t ever again think of questions about vaccine injury as fear mongering.

    Thank you for writing that piece. At least you opened the door to discussion. Oddly, that takes courage. I don’t know why, because aspirin hurts some kids. Peanut butter hurts some kids. But no one says someone is anti-peanutbutter for asking that their child not be given peanut butter.
    It’s nuts–so to speak! Even Paul Offit admits there is some risk.

    What is wrong with parents of vaccine-injured children asking that effort be taken to:

    –Identify which children should have fewer or no vaccines
    –Help those children who do get harmed to heal
    –Educate the public about which vaccine reactions mean “no more vaccines for this child”

    THAT would increase confidence in vaccines.

    You need to realize that Wakefield was attacked for telling the truth, and used as an example to others who wanted to speak out.

    You also need to understand that many of the children who have measles in Wales WERE vaccinated and the vaccines failed. So, back to blaming Andrew Wakefield for the issues caused by lack of testing.

    My son has bowel issues and autism. Due to the work of Andrew Wakefield, he was treated for the injury that may have happened due to the MMR or may have happened due to the mercury in vaccines. All I know is he went from normal to “toddler diarrhea and explosive poops” for 3 years until he was seen at a clinic that treated kids as if Dr. W’s work was correct.

    It was, because he now has normal bowel function.. This changed our life. Imagaine a child in diapers til the age of 6 with runny, explosive diarrhea. THAT is what journalists should be asking. Asking parents if their autistic kids also have bowel issues. Not just believing what corporations tell you about Andrew Wakefield.

    My son is now a happy kid, “aspergers” instead of autism (he used to bang himself on chairs) etc. My son is now like the joyous soul he was until he got the MMR.

    Coincidence? No. It’s not. I’m not even going to pretend it is.
    Until this starts happening to the children and grandchildren of people in the media, I guess we are all going to keep pretending. I have met Dr’s who have had this happen to their children. You have never seen such sorrow. As knowing you drank the koolaid and hurt your own child.

    Google the Greater Good and watch it. And thank you for at least having an open mind.

    But please don’t trash Dr. Wakefield. His work literally rescued my son from sooo much pain.

    Thank you for listening.

    • Submitted by Boris Ogon on 04/17/2013 - 11:23 pm.

      “You also need to understand that many of the children who have measles in Wales WERE vaccinated and the vaccines failed.”

      You have three problems here. (1) You did not cite any source for your assertion. One thing that is known is that second-dose uptake in Wales has, for the relevant periods, lagged first-dose uptake by 10% or more, limiting protection (see below), as is also the case for those too young to have received both doses. (2) Simple arithmetic implies that even in a highly vaccinated population, one is likely to see an excess among the vaccinated, as no vaccine is 100% effective. This is why the appropriate comparison is attack rates and why the status of the index case is important. (3) The actual attack rates in Wales are strongly clustered at ages 10-14. Guess what this corresponds to? The severe decline in uptake after the publication of the Lancet paper, which reached its nadir in 2003 at approximately 77%.

      Uptake data:
      Outbreak data:

  6. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 04/17/2013 - 02:45 pm.

    How many of these do we have to suffer through?

    Wakefield was not attacked for telling the truth, because he didn’t tell the truth. He lied. He wasn’t just wrong – his research was fraudulent. He made things up. And his medical licence was revoked because he experimented on children without consent. Wakefield is a monster who has done nothing but exploit families of autistic children, and who has contributed to the deaths and illnesses of other children whose parents were scared out getting their kids vaccinated.

    The really sad thing is that the people defending Wakefield on this site and elsewhere are Wakefield’s true victims. I feel sorry for you – I know you want an easy answer and someone to blame for what happened, but this just isn’t it.

  7. Submitted by Boris Ogon on 04/18/2013 - 12:07 am.

    A correction?

    One thing that the article fails to make clear is that Pandemrix was never used in the U.S. Indeed, putting commas around it in the seventh graf suggests exactly the opposite.

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