News broke recently that the leader of an influential British study linking autism to vaccines allegedly faked the data, causing confusion and anger among parents worldwide.
Findings from the original study, conducted in 1998, by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, were published in the much lauded medical journal, The Lancet, that same year. It concluded that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism and other disorders. While the study was small – only 12 children were engaged as participants – the findings sparked a passionate debate over vaccine safety and resulted in high levels of stress among parents about whether or not they should vaccinate their children – and caused many to opt out of the vaccination, which was a mainstay in disease prevention, altogether. This debate has continued ever since.
Then, earlier this month, an article debunking the study findings appeared in the British Medical Journal. In it, journalist Brian Deer states that in none of the 12 cases studied “could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.” Deer goes on to call the study “an elaborate fraud.”
If this is the case, and it is found that Dr. Wakefield falsified data, then I believe he should be held accountable. I’ll leave that to those whose job it is to find out … and then figure out … the proper penalty. I do hope, however, that they look at the original report published in The Lancet almost 13 years ago, as they will notice that Dr. Wakefield did not actually say that the MMR vaccine was the cause of autism; rather he explained that it may be one of the triggers. Unfortunately, like many studies – and in many cases where we – as doctors, patients, parents – are desperately looking for an answer, the belief that this particular vaccine causes autism spread like wildfire. The good news? While it fueled fear, that momentum also stimulated further thought and research into the possible causes of autism.
It helped us look deeper into epigenetics – a growing field in medicine based on the understanding that the totality of our environment can influence our genetic susceptibility to illness. Since we are all genetically unique, some of us will react differently than others to things we see, touch, smell or taste. Therefore, it is difficult to state with confidence – especially after reviewing only 12 cases – that the MMR vaccination could cause autism. However, it certainly opened our eyes to the idea that what is contained in the vaccination – including preservatives – could affect patients adversely. And, since we’ve now jumped in with both feet into research on autism, perhaps as a result of Wakefield’s original study, we’ve since recognized that children with the disorder are not able to detoxify metals, environmental pollutants, pesticides, etc., as efficiently through the liver and that they may suffer from impaired mitochondrial function, thereby lending further credence to the notion that it may not be the MMR, per se, but other elements that could contribute to an onset. In fact, since vaccines contain biologically-active proteins that impact the neurological, endocrine and immune systems in ways that cannot be controlled and may vary from person to person, any adverse impact of the vaccine may not be fully evident for months or even years and could manifest itself in a variety of conditions, including, but not limited to, autism.
So, will this latest news destroy Wakefield’s reputation and put an end to the vaccination debate? The former remains to be seen, but I sincerely doubt the latter will happen.
My opinion is that the controversy will indeed continue. Some will dismiss the paper, and Wakefield himself, as a fraud; others will likely continue to err on the side of extreme caution.
Perhaps somewhere in the middle is best. Parents should recognize what Wakefield may have been trying to say all along: They should proceed with care when it comes to vaccinations. That doesn’t mean they should forego them completely, but they need to be aware that one size certainly does not fit all when it comes to any vaccination. I implore parents to be sure their children are in very good health before an immunization is administered (no fevers, cold or other illness immediately prior to their shots), they should not be afraid to ask for a vaccination that does not contain preservatives (so that there are less potentially harmful elements within the cocktail) and, of course, they should talk to their doctor about their concerns. Above all, parents need to remember that in many states the choice they ultimately make regarding vaccinations is theirs – and others should respect it as exactly that: a personal choice made with the best interest of their children in mind.