A Bump in the Road or a Major Detour?
May 25, 2010

By Christine Vara
Yesterday morning on the Today Show, Matt Lauer interviewed Dr. Wakefield whose study, published in 1998, sparked a catastrophic collision of the scientific world of vaccines and autism.   To briefly summarize, Dr. Wakefield’s research suggested that the MMR vaccine could cause autism.   Not surprisingly, the publication of Dr. Wakefield’s study resulted in a chain reaction, which sparked controversy and concern amongst parents, scientists, doctors, lawyers and journalists.  Over the years, as detailed by the Associated Press yesterday, numerous studies have been conducted in an effort to verify his findings and yet none has found a connection between autism and any vaccine.  Along the road, a journalist revealed that Wakefield had conducted his research unethically, ten of the study’s authors renounced its conclusions and in February, the study was subsequently retracted by the medical journal who originally published it.  In his interview with Matt Lauer, what Wakefield described as a “bump in the road” was an announcement from Britain’s General Medical Council.  After nearly three years of formal investigation, the council found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct and stripped him of his right to practice medicine in the U.K. 
What I find disturbing is not simply the fact that this man has been found to be unethical in his practice of medicine.   That certainly may be a bump in the road for Wakefield.  While that is concerning, it’s not nearly as disheartening as the far reaching effects that his now discredited study has had on the public at large – which I consider to be a major detour. 
First off, there are the alarming statistics that indicate that vaccine hesitancy has severely compromised public health efforts in our country as well as others around the world, especially in regards to measlesImmunization rates have fallen, both as a direct and indirect result of Wakefield’s study, leading to a resurgence of diseases in recent years. I have to hand it to Wakefield though.  His one discredited study, with only a handful of patients, has rallied massive support, while follow on studies with thousands of patients disproving his theories remain practically obscure to the general public.  Ask the average parent on the street about vaccines and they will probably be able to tell you that they’ve heard of some link to autism.  What a challenge this presents to our public health advocates who must try to educate people regarding the overwhelming scientific evidence.  Have people come to disregard science so much that they will rally behind one study from a man with such questionable credentials?  Or are people more influenced by coffee-house conversation than by their own chosen medical professionals?
Then there is the careless, yet calculated misstatements that attempt to play on people’s fear of government conspiracy.  Now, I watch my share of movies, but I try to live my life in reality.  So when Wakefield claimed in yesterday’s interview that the U.S. government has been settling cases of vaccine-induced autism since 1991, I had to pinch myself.  While there is a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program that exists, no one has ever been compensated for a vaccine injury that resulted in autism.   The statistics from the National Vaccine Injury Compensation fund are publicly available and are there to comply with full disclosure.  He certainly must know this, so why even suggest otherwise?
Surprisingly, these detours have also hurt the autism community.  Let me make it clear, as a fellow blogger at Squidilicious.com confirms in a recent post, not all parents with autistic children are convinced by Wakefield or his supporters.  They have probably suffered the most.  So much effort has been put into Wakefield’s claims that the suggested autism/vaccine link often overshadows other autism discussion.  When there is so much to learn in regards to autism, it seems a shame that anti-vaccine sentiment has become one of the main rallying cries for certain autism groups.  Why not concentrate our efforts on other autism awareness, resources and research that can truly change the lives of those who live with autism? 
So at the end of the Today Show interview, I was still left wondering whether Matt Lauer and other mainstream media will help to  address the risk of vaccine refusal and help to get the word out regarding the effectiveness of vaccines?  Will anyone respond to Wakefield’s accusations of the government paying out on injury claims linked to autism?  Probably not.  Which is why independent organizations like Every Child By Two are trying to look for a way back to the road of reason.  The road that leads to better health.  The road that should be paved by good science.  Of course, there are bound to be bumps along the way, but we must try to steer clear of any major detours.  As for Wakefield, we can only hope that this scientist, turned advocate, will finally pull off at a rest stop.

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