There was a new development today in a debate that won't seem to go away; The false belief that vaccines cause autism. Dr Wakefields 1998 study, the first and only study to ever find a link between vaccination and autism has long since been discredited by other research. Last year, the Lancet finally retracted the study after learning that the children used in it had been hand picked by lawyers who were trying to sue vaccine companies. Now it turns out the study might have been more than sloppy: it was outright fraud.
A new report out today in the British medical journal studiously rechecked medical records of the children involved against the data reported in the study. Wakefield's original premise was that autistic symptoms supposedly appeared in children in average 6.3 days after receiving an MMR vaccine. Medical records from the children show this premise to be outright fraud: many children displayed autistic symptoms before the vaccine, others not until many months later, and he changed dates to invent his correlation. The bottom line: the study was a bold faced lie.
After the study was originally released, the medial outlets picked up the report, and vaccination rates dropped dramatically. As this happened, more kids got sick from diseases that they were no longer vaccinated against. An unknown number died, and countless more experienced significant suffering, lengthy hospital stays, and permanent disabilities. In exchange for the lives of these kids, Dr Wakefield received $750 thousand dollars in blood money from the lawyers who were suing the vaccine company.
If true, Dr Wakefield's fraud will go down as one of the greatest in history; at least on par with Bernie Madoff. Yet as sickening and infuriating as this news is, we're more troubled by another aspect of it all.
This story shows the power of media to do vast damage through the promotion of incorrect information. The original study involved a mere 12 children; such a small sample size that even if the findings were true, they would still be highly suspect. Numerous other large scale studies based on real data have debunked the myth over and over again. Yet for more than a decade, myth was winning against fact, and with some people it still is.
There is more proof that unicorns and lawn faeries cause autism, if only because unicorns and faeries haven't been studied yet as a potential cause, whereas vaccines have. Yet the myth lives on and is widespread today, aided in no small part by irresponsible celebrity "advocates" such as Jenny McCarthy. Nor is there any hope that this recent news will now make it go away.
In our own work, we watch on a daily basis as myth and lies propagate among the public, destroying kids and families in the process. So much of what parents think they know about many issues are actually myths created by people with an agenda. These myths generate hurtful, damaging responses and disastrous public policy. It is deeply angering when people spread ignorance about things for which they haven't taken the time to explore in detail nor fully understand. Cockily, defiantly, McCarthy and other reckless advocates in any number of areas spread false information to the masses ... myths that kill and injure children. The vaccine autism myth is but one example of this among many.
This fraud was sad. But the fact that we live in a society in which any self serving fool can create a harmful myth with a small, self-selected study; whereas no amount of fact can succeed in killing it because people put more weight in celebrity opinion than in science, now that's flat our terrifying.