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Web Roundup: Commentaries on the BMJ, Andrew Wakefield, and Autism

Commentary and reactions from around the Web on the BMJ article alleging that Andrew Wakefield falsified data in his controversial 1998 Lancet paper.

This is the article (“How the Case against the MMR Vaccine was Fixed”) that started it all. In the first part of a special BMJ series, Brian Deer “exposes the bogus data behind claims that launched a worldwide scare over the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, and reveals how the appearance of a link with autism was manufactured at a London medical school.” You can also read the BMJ editorial “Piltdown Medicine: The Missing Link between MMR and Autism” here. Below, we present a collection of some of the best commentary, opinion, criticism, and reactions to the story from some of our favorite blogs, magazines, and websites.

In "Piltdown Medicine: Andrew Wakefield's Scientific Fraud Was Worse than Previously Thought,” surgeon/scientist blogger Orac's offers a relentless, merciless blow-by-blow account of Wakefield’s perfidy, summarizing in detail the length’s he went to in order to obtain the data he needed to support his conclusions. The post also attempts to answer the vexing question of why, in the face of overwhelming evidence that virtually nothing Wakefield claims is backed by a shred of evidence, the anti-vaccination movement continues to support Wakefield and his bogus claims.

Science blogger and author of the book The Panic Virus Seth Mnookin’s post “The Problems with the BMJ’s Wakefield-Fraud Story” raises several interesting points about the way in which this story has been reported and hyped. According to Mnookin, the BMJ is “guilty of over-hyping their story in a way that ended up creating a misrepresentation of the story as a whole. By sending out breathless press releases and prepping the worldwide media for a series of bombshell stories, the BMJ created the impression that this was fundamentally new news — and it wasn’t.” Mnookin notes that “the stories that are currently running are not really all that different in tone or content than the stories that ran almost exactly a year ago, when a UK medical panel found there was sufficient evidence to justify stripping Wakefield of his right to practice medicine.”

Here’s Brian Deer on CNN, responding to Andrew Wakefield’s comments and charges that Deer is little more than a shill for “Big Pharma” and a journalistic “hit man” who was “brought in to take [Wakefield] down because they [the aforementioned Big Phama] are very, very concerned about the adverse reactions to vaccines that are occurring to children.

In the commentary “Will Autism Fraud Report Be a Vaccine Booster?”, the author claims that because of the scare ignited by Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet paper and the media hype surrounding it, immunization rates in Britain dropped from 92 percent to 73 percent, and were as low as 50 percent in some parts of London. The effect was not nearly as dramatic in the United States, but researchers have estimated that as many as 125,000 US children born in the late 1990s did not get the MMR vaccine because of the Wakefield splash.” In light of these new findings against Wakefield, the question is whether “In a country where the name Andrew Wakefield doesn't register with most people,” will this report will make much difference? Perhaps the greatest impact will come “if it sways celebrities who have lent their voice to the anti-vaccine movement.”

Writing in The American Spectator, Robert Goldberg looks at “Andrew Wakefield’s Lethal Legacy.” Interestingly, Goldberg believes that “Wakefield's fraud is beside the point. He was able to do so much damage for so long because the media, the scientific community, politicians and trial lawyers found it in their interest to believe and lionize him. We ate our young. Wakefield just gave us the recipe.” Goldberg makes the point that despite the existence of dozens of studies showing no correlation between autism and vaccines or thimerasol, the media’s reflexive “on the one hand/on the other” reporting “allowed Wakefield and his followers to discredit the findings just by saying so. His theories were published by mainstream medical journals, championed by major media outlets, given legitimacy by other scientists and politicians. He didn't fool us. He was given a platform. He created a narrative people wanted to believe.”

PalMD, of The Whitecoat Underground blog, is “Looking for Stronger Statements from Sanjay Gupta” on the autism-vaccine link. PalMD says that Gupta, though he “made it clear he favors vaccines” in an interview about the Wakefield saga, “strayed a bit too far into a “both side-ism” that creates more confusion than clarity” and instead of taking the opportunity to “speak loudly and clearly about this fraud and its negative effect on public health,” instead “peppered his remarks with qualifiers.”

In “In the Wake of Wakefield: Risk Perception and Vaccines,” a guest post at the Scientific American blog, David Ropeik worries that “little attention will be paid to the larger lesson” to be learned from the Wakefield saga: “Thousands of people are now getting all sorts of diseases that had been nearly eradicated, diseases which are resurgent now that people around the world have become fearful of vaccines, thanks both to Dr. Wakefield and to the innate way the human animal perceives and responds to risk. The lesson is that sometimes what we do to protect ourselves feels safe, but makes things worse.” Ropeik writes that “Examining how the psychology of risk perception played out in the Wakefield affair, and continues to play out in public concern about vaccines, can tell us a lot about how to avoid this risk in the future…the huge risk that arises when we get risk wrong.”

And finally, Emily Willingham at The Biology Files blog asks a very interesting question indeed: “There Were Two Other Non-retracting Authors on the Wakefield MMR Paper: Where Are They Now?"