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.
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.