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Connie Howard of Vue Weekly: Well, well, well: Wakefield a Witch-Hunt?

Posted Feb 11 2010 12:00am

Salem-hanging Connie Howard presents a fresh perspective on the Wakefield story. From Edmonton, Alberta's Vue Weekly.

The Lancet retracts study connecting vaccines to autism
Connie Howard / health@vueweekly.com

It has been cause for celebration among vaccine proponents: The Lancet has retracted Dr. Andrew Wakefield's 1998 Lancet paper suggesting a connection between the MMR vaccine, bowel disease and autism. Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, has been accused of unethical and dishonest behaviour.

Media stories present it as a victorious end to the vaccine-autism controversy. But Melanie Phillips, who has been reporting and investigating this story for many years, and who has interviewed and consulted experts on both sides of the issue, has called the campaign against Wakefield a witch-hunt.

Where's the truth?

To provide a little context, Wakefield and his colleagues published the first phase of a study comparing vaccinated primates with unvaccinated controls in neurotoxicology three months ago. The study showed that the severity of autism is strongly linked to the relative body burden of toxic metals. Wakefield and his colleagues are now on the brink of publishing the subsequent phases of their research, which followed the monkeys through standard vaccination schedules over a longer period of time, and the results, those on the inside have said, are equally damning.

It's easy to see why discrediting Wakefield would be a good move for the industry.

What about the alleged unethical behaviour? Wakefield represented three of the children in his Lancet paper as having regressive autism, when they in fact had Asperger's syndrome. To an observer, this is hairsplitting: Asperger's is generally seen as an autism spectrum disorder. He had also been accused of recruiting the children he used in his research, suggesting he planted the connection between their illness and the vaccine. But in reality the families came to his hospital because they'd heard they might find someone willing to listen.

According to his detractors, Wakefield created the appearance of a link between MMR and autism when he should have known there is no reasonable basis for it. But given that there is a known link between measles and brain damage, and one between mercury and brain damage, and given that the parents who came to him had observed a link between their children's regression and their vaccination, it's inaccurate to say he created a link. It would be much more accurate to say he observed a link, and being a responsible physician with a scientific mind, chose to pursue that link.

But because he has given voice to the parents who believe their children have been harmed by vaccination, he is being held responsible for new measles outbreaks. But measles outbreaks occur in schools everywhere, even among the vaccinated.

All this must be understood in context of the bigger, ongoing controversy and several key voices. Upon reviewing the quality of most of the major studies upon which claims of MMR safety are based, Dr. Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues at the Cochrane Collaboration concluded that "the design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing, is largely inadequate."

Bernadine Healy, former head of the National Institute of Health (NIH), has told CBS news that when she first began to consider the possibility of an autism/vaccine link she dismissed it as impossible and foolish. But once she started looking closely at the basic science and the research that's been done in animals she had to conclude the question has not been answered, and that public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the potential connection as irrational.

Our faith in corporate communications is astounding, really, given the fact that industry must put the shareholder first, that lawsuits are considered the cost of doing business and that harmful drugs are not pulled from the market until they have become clearly harmful for business.

There is a common theme to these kinds of stories: dissenters are ignored, and if they are compelling enough, they are hung out to dry. But we will never know the extent or nature of a possible vaccine/autism link if we silence the voices of those who are wary.

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