The anti-vaccination myth: How a dangerous movement was encouraged by the ravings of a now-disgraced doctor
Andrew Wakefield's 1998 paper in The Lancet linking MMR vaccines to autism has proved to quite possibly be one of the biggest medical hoaxes in history
April 2 marks World Autism Day, a day where members of the United Nations are encouraged to raise awareness about people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and dispel common myths associated with the condition. But one can argue nothing has done more damage to the cause than proponents of what has come to be known as the anti-vax movement.
Vaccine hesitancy, now better-known as the anti-vax movement, is the reluctance or refusal of parents to get their children vaccinated because of a fear that vaccinations are unsafe and may cause serious complications (read autism) to their wards.
While hesitancy has existed since the invention of vaccination and even pre-dates the coining of the term 'vaccines' and 'vaccination' by nearly 80 years, the advent of social media has meant that the anti-vax movement has far more reach and influence compared to any previous point in history.
In fact, the movement has been identified by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019 — quite the dubious honor to have considering the list also features the global influenza pandemic, antimicrobial resistance, Ebola and "other high-threat pathogens" like Dengue and HIV.
While the movement is powered largely by conspiracy theories, proponents often like to point to a 1998 research paper by former UK physician Andrew Wakefield titled 'Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children' as hardline proof that vaccines have significant drawbacks.
Published in respected, weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal 'The Lancet', the paper claimed it had linked the MMR vaccine — which is used to vaccinate children against measles, mumps, and rubella — to colitis and autism spectrum disorder.
Following its publication, the claims in the paper were widely reported and resulted in a sharp drop in vaccination rates in the UK and Ireland and led to an increase in outbreaks of measles and mumps.
The claims saw multiple large epidemiological studies undertaken by organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Institute of Medicine of the US National Academy of Sciences, the UK National Health Service, and the Cochrane Library. Each and every single one of them found that there was no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
But despite a mountain of unfavorable evidence, the movement gained further momentum in 2001 and 2002 when Wakefield published more papers where he suggested that immunization programs were unsafe. These papers had no new evidence and were based on laboratory work that he said showed the measles virus had been found in tissue samples taken from children who had autism and bowel problems. This move would prove incredibly damaging to healthcare efforts.
They would attract significant media coverage, peaking with demands that then-Prime Minister Tony Blair reveal whether his son had been given the MMR vaccine.
It was the biggest science story of 2002, with 1,257 articles written on the subject and full confidence in the MMR vaccine subsequently falling from 59% to 41%. Experts characterized it as "perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the 20th Century".
The fact that the findings in Wakefield's paper were entirely flawed was further exposed by investigative reporter Brian Deer, who after a four-month-long investigation, wrote an article in The Sunday Times where he revealed that Wakefield had received £55,000 from Legal Aid Board solicitors seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.
Furthermore, Deer also alleged that several of the parents quoted in his paper saying MMR had damaged their children were also litigants, that Wakefield knew his test results contradicted his own claims, and that he had applied for patents on a vaccine that was a rival of the MMR vaccine.
After the emergence of these conflicts of interest, the General Medical Council (GMC), which is responsible for licensing doctors and supervising medical ethics in the UK, began investigating Wakefield.
On January 28, 2010, GMC Fitness to Practise panel of three medical and two lay members ruled that the physician had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" and with "callous disregard", finding that he had conducted his study without the approval of an independent ethics committee.
'The Lancet', which had partially retracted the paper in 2004 following the first round of allegations, completely retracted it in 2010 after the ruling by the GMC, with the journal's editor-in-chief stating that Wakefield's findings were "utterly false" and that they had been deceived.
Wakefield's misery was compounded further when in May of that year, the GMC panel found him guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and 12 involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children, and ordered that he be struck off the medical register, effectively banning him from practicing medicine for the rest of his life.
Fellow physicians, medical journals, and prominent editors have all tied Wakefield's actions to epidemics and deaths and umpteen studies have since long debunked the links between the MMR vaccine and autism but the continued perpetuation of misinformation has meant that the anti-vax movement is as strong as ever.