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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Embattled doctor defends Autism research

Published: April 15, 2011
Section: Front Page, Top Stories

Former British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who authored the 1998 Lancet paper suggesting that vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella can cause autism, defended his research during a speech in Rapaporte Treasure Hall Wednesday evening.

Last February, The Lancet retracted the article and in May 2010, the British General Medical Council prohibited Wakefield from practicing medicine in Britain for unethical behavior and misconduct. Wakefield’s paper frightened many parents about the potential dangers of the MMR vaccine and some claim the scare has led to outbreaks of the measles virus.

“How can you possibly determine that the benefits [of the vaccine] outweigh the risks when you have no idea what the risks are?” Wakefield asked at Brandeis on Wednesday.

Ninety percent of unvaccinated kids can develop measles after a brief exposure, and it can cause encephalitis and death, Dr. Steven Miles, Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, said in a statement to The Hoot.

“Wakefield came to Minnesota and frightened our Somali community. We have had 15 cases and eight hospitalizations in the last month, a stunning increase,” Miles said. “Mr. Wakefield is an anti-science fraud whose words are responsible for outbreaks of measles and diphtheria across the United States. He deserves freedom of speech but he does not deserve the respect of attendance at a university like Brandeis.”

Miles said that Wakefield should not have been invited to speak.

“I can understand giving preference to community members. Wakefield is not a community member.

The people who currently have measles in Massachusetts are,” Miles said.

Wakefield said that the schedule and time between when vaccinations are given can have negative health effects on the patient.

“You could have a huge impact on mortality … if you simply modified the program,” Wakefield said. “We are giving children poisons in vaccines. This may not of itself cause developmental problems but what it does do is render the children vulnerable.”

Jake Crosby ’11, a contributing editor for the publication Age of Autism, organized the event on Wednesday.

In front of a slideshow with photographs of sick children that Wakefield and his colleagues saw, Wakefield defended himself against allegations that he used fraud to manipulate data and research for the Lancet paper.

“These children were not investigated as part of a scientific study. They came to Professor Walker Smith because they were sick,” Wakefield said about some of the patients. “There was no unethical research at anytime on any child at the Royal Free.”

Wakefield’s defense comes after the General Medical Council in Britain investigated the research and found that among other breaches of conduct, lawyers for parents planning to sue vaccine manufacturers paid Wakefield. The Council also stated that Wakefield took blood samples from children at a birthday party and paid the children £5 for giving their blood.

Wakefield denied the criticism.

“Not one single patient came to us through lawyers,” he said. “They were clinical referrals.”

“Accordingly the Panel has determined that Dr Wakefield’s name should be erased from the medical register,” the Council wrote in the May 2010 report. “The Panel concluded that it is the only sanction that is appropriate to protect patients and is in the wider public interest, including the maintenance of public trust and confidence in the profession and is proportionate to the serious and wide-ranging findings made against him.”

Since the 1998 paper, most scientists have concluded that there is no link suggesting a cause between vaccines and autism.

During his lecture, Wakefield repeatedly criticized Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer, who wrote a series of stories exposing the alleged fraud and unethical conduct by Wakefield.

He also blamed journalists for misrepresenting the issue and the facts, in part because the media gets many ads from pharmaceutical companies.

Wakefield said that he did not care what journalists like Deer had to say about him and explained that criticism of his research has only hurt sick children.

About 30 people in the audience of 80 stood up to applaud Wakefield during his introduction and at the end of his remarks.

Today, between one in 100 and one in 150 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. Crosby said that Wakefield’s research represents a potential cause.

“[Autism Spectrum Disorder] exploded and something has happened. And tonight, we’ll discover the biggest controversy over one of the things that might have happened,” Crosby said.

Others disapproved of the talk. “I have never in my life seen such atrocious science and statistical fudging be so readily gobbled up by a group of angry parents,” Brandeis student Zach Feiger (PhD) said in a statement to The Hoot.

Suggesting that the MMR vaccine causes bowel symptoms and disease, Wakefield pointed to a photograph of a child stuck leaning over the side of a couch who had recently received a vaccine.

“This is a child who has lost the ability to communicate that he has abdominal pain,” Wakefield said.

He showed another photograph of a child with an abnormally large abdomen, but who was otherwise extremely thin and weak. “He is sick. He looks like a child from a famine zone in West Africa,” Wakefield said.

Wakefield, who said that gastrointestinal and bowel symptoms affect between 45 to 80 percent of children with autism, said that the damage from the vaccines can be reversed.

“When medicine doesn’t have an answer, it blames the patient or the parent,” Wakefield said. “This isn’t rocket science. This is treatable.

“My colleagues years ago said we cannot be seen to question the safety of vaccinations because we are pediatricians,” Wakefield said. “If you don’t ask the question, then you’ll never know.”

Despite the loss of his career and reputation, Wakefield defended his work.

“I’m just a doctor trying to do a job,” he said. “The job has to be done. It’s far too important an issue to walk away from.”