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Comment on: Wrong About Vaccine Safety: A Review of Andrew Wakefield’s “Callous Disregard”

Posted Jan 23 2014 4:06pm

Andrew Wakefield has been discussed here and elsewhere a great deal. Thankfully his presence in the autism communities seems to have retreated to a small core of supporters and the occasional parent convention where he can, yet again, defend himself. Yes, his supporters are vocal. And, yes, he continues to cause harm. But his heyday is long past.

Mr. Wakfield was stripped of his medical license after an extremely lengthy hearing. Mr. Wakefield chose to not present evidence at the hearing, chose not to appeal the decision and has, instead, offered up his defense in a book: “Callous Disregard”. Callous Disregard has been discussed online multiple times.

Mr. Wakefield and his supporters tend to make sciency appearing defenses of him. For example, there are claims that his work has multiple independent replications in various countries. If one checks the references used to make that claim , one finds the claim is, well, false. Citations in “Callous Disregard” often do not support the arguments Mr. Wakefield is making. But few people have the time to go through his prose, much less his references.

One gentleman has taken on that task. Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, has published a paper: Wrong About Vaccine Safety: A Review of Andrew Wakefield’s “Callous Disregard” in which he debunks the main claims in “Callous Disregard”. Here is the abstract:

Abstract: On February 28, 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published an article in the Lancet on 12 children “with a history of pervasive developmental disorder and intestinal symptoms. Onset of behavioral symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children.” Though not claiming the MMR vaccine caused the symptoms, adding what parents thought certainly raised the possibility. Statements and articles by Wakefield suggested he believed such a link probable. Vaccination rates plummeted in the UK and outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases followed. Investigative journalist Brian Deer uncovered dishonest and unethical medical practices by Wakefield, resulting in Wakefield losing his medical license. Rather than appeal the decision, Wakefield wrote a book, “Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines – The Truth Behind a Tragedy,” wherein he claims loss of his license was a political attempt to silence his criticism of vaccine safety. This paper examines the validity of Wakefield’s claims. A careful review of publicly available information makes it clear that Wakefield’s claims regarding vaccine safety are wrong. It is hoped that this review will be used by doctors and public health personnel to encourage parents hesitating to have their children vaccinated to question anti-vaccination claims in general, given that many proponents often refer to Wakefield as an authority and display in their own writings and pronouncements similar erroneous claims.

The paper is 17 pages as published and includes 142 references. His conclusion is quite strong, and includes this paragraph:

I have shown that every major claim Wakefield makes in his book concerning vaccine safety is wrong. I have given accurate quotes from both Wakefield’s book and sources that contradict his claims, including those he misquotes. Based on the old adage, “trust but verify,” where possible I have given the URLs to many of the documents and articles referred to in this paper. My hope is that those who take the time to check will realize that Wakefield’s claims regarding vaccine safety are not only wrong but also harmful, and that once this is realized, people will read Deer’s articles [3] and the British Medical Council’s findings [1,2] with an open mind.

How does he back up such a strong conclusion? Consider this point he makes in his summary (which is discussed at length in the paper)

Wakefield claims that a leading Swedish vaccine researcher, Dr. Christenson, told him that vaccine safety studies had not been carried out in Sweden; yet, gives references to two Swedish papers that extensively report on vaccine safety studies in Sweden, one of them coauthored by Dr. Christenson.

Yes, once again, we see Mr. Wakefield claiming something which the very references he uses show the opposite.

Consider Mr. Wakefield’s stance on the Urabe-strain containing mumps vaccine (a component of the MMR used for some time in the UK). Mr. Wakefield ignored the Urabe vaccine during his time as an expert for the MMR litigation in the UK but has more recently taken the story up as some sort of defense of himself. If that sounds confusing, it really isn’t. Mr. Wakefield thinks we all will just forget that he pushed his own pet theory 15 years ago and just listen to the fearful message he gives now.

Dr. Harrison states:

“Wakefield claims that the Urabe mumps strain contained in the MMR vaccine used in the UK starting in 1988 had been approved after the Canadians withdrew it. Not True.”

Yes, the UK didn’t approve the Urabe Strain vaccine after Canada withdrew it.

Canada licensed Trivirix in May 1986 [57]. The starting date for the UK for MMR vaccinations was October 1, 1988 [58,59]. The license for Trivirix was withdrawn in Canada in May 1990 stating: “Recent laboratory findings from the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan have provided sound evidence. . . In addition, the report states: “The infection follows the course of benign aseptic meningitis” [60]. The UK withdrew the Urabe-containing vaccine on September 14, 1992 [61].

Dr. Harrison also goes to great length to discuss how Mr. Wakefield’s characterization of the Urabe strain vaccine is inaccurate–painting a story of a dangerous vaccine where the evidence does not support this argument.

So Wakefield carried out an incorrect statistical analysis, claimed the authors combined the data when they did not, and incorrectly gave a shorter follow-up time. All of these inaccuracies move evidence from showing safety to showing possible harm.

Dr. Harrison concludes the paper with:

The only conclusion that can be reached from this review is that the title of Wakefield’s book is incomplete. It should read: “Andrew Wakefield’s Callous Disregard for the Facts.”

A rather bold statement given Mr. Wakefield’s litigious nature, having brought suit against the BMJ and Brian Deer and threatening an autism charity with legal action.

Mr. Wakefield’s supporters will likely ignore this lengthy takedown. Mr. Wakefield is dishonest. He lies. And the sad thing is that people believe him.

By Matt Carey

note: minor edits were made after this article was published

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