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Posted at 6:30 PM ET, 01/11/2011

Wakefield tried to capitalize on autism-vaccine link, report says

By Rob Stein

Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor who made now widely discredited claims about a link between autism and childhood vaccines, explored business arrangements to capitalize on the supposed association, according to a new report.

In a follow-up to another report published last week in the British medical journal BMJ, investigative reporter Brian Deer describes that documents he obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that show that Wakefield met with officials at the Royal Free Medical School in London where he worked and others to discuss developing new vaccines to replace the MMR and other products.

In 1998, Wakefield published a study in another British medical journal, The Lancet suggesting that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine could cause autism. The study triggered international alarm about vaccines, but quickly came under intense criticism, was discredited by follow-up research, and was eventually formally retracted by the journal.

Nevertheless, the incidence of childhood measles rose in Great Britain and elsewhere after Wakefield's study was published, as worried parents refused to have their children vaccinated against the potentially deadly disease. Parents have also shunned other vaccines. And even after Wakefield's work was debunked, he continues his research in the United States and to have loyal, highly vocal supporters.

Last week, BMJ, published an analysis by Deer that concluded Wakefield's work was fraudulent. Deer outlined a series of discrepancies and irregularities in the research, including falsification of data, that remained unquestioned for years.

In the new report, Deer describes a variety of efforts Wakefield undertook to make money from his work. For example, Wakefield and his associates predicted they could make more than $43 million a year from diagnostic kits alone for a condition he argued affected autistic children dubbed "austistic enterocolitis," according to one 35-page document.

By Rob Stein  | January 11, 2011; 6:30 PM ET
Categories:  Autism, Vaccines  
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Of course Wakefield would profit from what the prospectus for the company named for Wakefield's wife referred to as “litigation driven testing” only if he could convince people that their children needed to be tested, and he attempted to do that in a manner that the editors of the BMJ termed fraudulent.

The editors wrote: “Is it possible that [Wakefield] was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.

Posted by: bpatient | January 11, 2011 7:04 PM | Report abuse

BP - How many people you think were in on it besides the Royal Free?

And Stein, Freedom of Information Act request? What US Government agency had this information? FDA? CDC? NIH? SEC?

Posted by: bensmyson | January 12, 2011 12:35 AM | Report abuse

It will be interesting to watch just how quickly officials at the Royal Free distance themselves from Wakefield.

Posted by: bpatient | January 12, 2011 1:00 AM | Report abuse

@bensmyson: here in the UK we have our very own "Freedom of Information Act 2000", as a brief internet search will confirm.


Posted by: bossarb | January 12, 2011 8:53 AM | Report abuse

Analysts reports for every company which produces prescription drugs always focus on how much money the drugs will make. The reports predict how many people need to have a certain disease, diabetes, for examaple, for a drug to be profitable. Many drugs are not profitable enough and are called orphan drugs. Despite the demand by a small group of people for these drugs, they are not produced due to the lack of profitability. Dr. Wakefield's actions are no different from any other researcher in trying to take advantage of a financial opportunity.

What is missing from the medical journal story is a discussion of the link between mercury in vaccines and autism. All reports have said that the link between vaccines and autism has been debunked. The strength of Dr. Wakefield's argument is on the link with mercury. It is well known that mercury toxicity can cause neurologic problems, being exacerbated with young brains. Therefore, it is not a stretch to make the claim that mercury in vaccines can be the source of autism. My problem has always been that the mercury argument stopped with vaccines. It is a known fact, for example, that the Food & Drug Administration strongly recommends that expectant and new mothers avoid all fish which may be contaminated with mercury. Unfortunately, at the same time, "experts" are advising expectant and new mothers to eat more fish such as tuna (which is on the FDA's Do-Not-Eat list) to provide the baby with omega 3 fats for brain development. In this case, the FDA is right and these particular "nutrition experts" are wrong. With the known toxicity of methyl-mercury, few mothers would knowingly expose their babies to such a toxin. The British Medical Journal article simply sweeps these risks under the rug by focusing only on vaccines and not on mercury. Given the growing incidence of autism and the admission by medical authorities that they don't know the cause, all new and expectant mothers would be well served to avoid the risk of mercury from all sources, beginning with fish. For a list of fish which should be avoided, go to the FDA's website.

Posted by: as554629 | January 12, 2011 2:07 PM | Report abuse

The FDA gently suggests that expectant mothers avoid alcohol, tobacco products, cyanide, and heroin, too. But they don't claim that any of them cause autism.

Do you just make this stuff up as you go along, or do you have something resembling evidence?

Posted by: bobsewell | January 12, 2011 5:18 PM | Report abuse

@as554629, You've been hornswoggled by all that hype that Deidre Imus has been humping for years. My hope is that if you have children, they're all vaccinated (with or without the mercury compound used as a perservative).

Posted by: therapidone | January 12, 2011 7:22 PM | Report abuse

My greatest wish would be for Wakefield, Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy et al. to be put on trial due to the deaths that have occurred thanks to their fear-mongering about vaccines. I haven't figured out the appropriate charge, but there must be something appropriate.

I vaccinate my kids to protect them and to protect the people around them. (Did you know that when you vaccinate kids for illnesses like influenza, rates of those illnesses drop dramatically in the elderly in the community? I think of it as the Grandkid Effect.)

Posted by: marag | January 12, 2011 8:21 PM | Report abuse

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