A CNN story is making the rounds about how Bill Gates called the autism-vaccine link an "absolute lie". Bill Gates made the following statement in response to a softball question from Sanjay Gupta -
Well, Dr. Wakefield has been shown to have used absolutely fraudulent data. He had a financial interest in some lawsuits, he created a fake paper, the journal allowed it to run. All the other studies were done, showed no connection whatsoever again and again and again. So it’s an absolute lie that has killed thousands of kids. Because the mothers who heard that lie, many of them didn’t have their kids take either pertussis or measles vaccine, and their children are dead today. And so the people who go and engage in those anti-vaccine efforts — you know, they, they kill children. It’s a very sad thing, because these vaccines are important.
Of course, the usual sources are all up in arms about these statements. On the outraged side you have have Age of Autism and Adventures in Autism with the typical lines about lack of studies and buying attacks. On the flip side, you have Left Brain Right Brain with a "telling it like it is" and the Autism Vaccine Science Foundation plugging the interview.
I think both of groups are getting overly excited about nothing. Who really cares about a throw away line from Bill Gates? While his foundation does do good work around the world in helping prevent disease I don't think what he said was anything more than a typical PR fluff statement. It is a good thing that his foundation is pledging 10 billion dollars to help save lives. But what does Bill Gates really know about the subject?
If look at what Bill Gates said, you can easily see that he isn't that knowledgeable on the subject. Lets ignore the use of the phrase "absolute lie" in a sentence that makes a completely unsubstantiated claim - "killed thousands of kids" - and instead focus on the two specific examples he gives - the pertussis and measles vaccines.
The first, the pertussis vaccine, is easy to dispense with - Wakefield has nothing to do with the pertussis vaccine. He has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever published on the subject nor have I ever read about him discussing that vaccine specifically. But more importantly, if you actually take the time to look into the recent pertussis outbreaks, you would quickly see that they are happening for complex reasons not just because some small group of people are declining vaccinations.
So moving onto the second, the measles vaccine. Did Wakefield really have an effect on the use of the vaccine around the world for the past decade? While I am sure that he had localized effects in the US and UK, worldwide the picture is quite different. Vaccinations around the world have been rising and deaths falling for the past decade -
As the result of a vigorous vaccination campaign in which more than 700 million children have been immunized against the measles, the number of deaths worldwide fell 78% from 2000 to 2008, the consortium of organizations known as the Measles Initiative announced today. About 733,000 children died in 2000, compared with 164,000 in 2008, the group said.
I am not sure how you look at a 78% drop worldwide and come up with the figure that Wakefield and his ilk are responsible for "thousands" of deaths.
The problem is that people hear names like "Bill Gates" and assume that just because they are successful, rich, and (presumably) intelligent that they automatically know what they are talking about. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because a person has done well in one area doesn't mean that they are automatically knowledgeable in another.
Bill Gates made his statements while acting as a spokesperson for his foundation and was pushing the agenda of his foundation. Since his foundation is doing good work that isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we really shouldn't read too much into what he said.