How Fraud & Lazy Science Led Us to Vaccine Madness

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A nurse holds out a tray of immunization's at the city of Newark's 'School Bus Express' free immunization program for Newark youth on August 28, 2013 in Newark, New Jersey.
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The measles outbreak at Disneyland has reignited the debate about whether parents should be required to vaccinate their kids.

Does the government have the right to tell parents they must inject their children with a cocktail of dead or weakened disease germs in order to stave off deadly infectious diseases like the measles, mumps, and rubella?

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky threw gasoline on the already heated debate when he recently spoke with CNBC.

"I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," he said. "I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea, I think they're a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input—the state doesn't own your children, parents own their children and it is an issue of freedom."

Parents may have the freedom to ignore science and refuse to get their kids vaccinated, but scientists don't have the freedom to publish false and misleading scientific findings in highly regarded medical journals.

Yet, that's exactly what Andrew Wakefield did. He was a surgeon and medical researcher that published the infamous and now discredited study that linked vaccine injections to autism.

“The United Kingdom doesn’t export much these days,” say Brian Deer, an investigative journalist for The Sunday Times of London and the man that exposed the faulty science behind Wakefield's study. “But one of the things it has exported twice has been scares over vaccines.”

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Deer says that Londoners “exported” a scare over the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine to the United States—something that he calls a “complete red herring.”

And then in 1998, Wakefield’s research became something of a bombshell study. Parents of autistic children felt they finally had a scientific explanation as to why their kids had suddenly changed their behavior. But researchers who tried to replicate the study continually failed to find a link between vaccines and autism.

“Because you have so many parents out there looking for answers and rushing to look at their children’s medical records, when someone comes along and says, ‘Well, could it have been a vaccine?,’ you get this explosive mix,” says Deer.

When Wakefield’s study reached the media, hysteria quickly set in. But it would later be revealed that Wakefield was working directly for a team crafting a $56 million lawsuit that was seeking to link the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.

As skepticism regarding Wakefield's claims continued to mount, things finally came to an end after a 2004 investigation by Deer found that Wakefield did not disclose he was being funded through solicitors seeking evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers.  

“The British General Medical Council, who took away his license to practice medicine, found him guilty of four counts of dishonesty involving his research,” says Deer. “[That included] a dishonest description of the children enrolled in it.”

The editor of The Lancet, the medical journal where Wakefield’s research was originally published, retracted Wakefield’s paper, calling it “the most appalling catalog and litany of some of the most terrible behavior in any research.” The editors of the British Medical Journal also described Wakefield’s research as an “elaborate fraud.”

“All of [those comments] followed the most detailed and evidence-based investigations in the history of medicine,” says Deer.

Deer theorizes that one of the reasons the vaccine myth has been able to prevail throughout the years is because of the internet.

“People like that can find each other,” says Deer of the so-called “anti-vaxxers.” “It’s like the people who believe that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States or that the U.S. government is responsible for the World Trade Center collapsing. What you have in this particular case is a number of people who claim that [the anti-vaccine movement] has been scientifically verified when, in fact, it hasn’t.”

Deer says that despite a lack of science, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist have been able to cut through the debate because politicians like Sen. Rand Paul validate their stances for the sake of libertarianism. Additionally, Deer argues that those that reject the scientific community are doing it out of stubbornness.

“There are people for whom it is important to believe that they are smarter than doctors,” he says. “That’s not a left or right thing—it’s quite often a class thing. In the United Kingdom, we found that in the more affluent areas that vaccine rates declined. And we saw tremendous measles outbreaks across the United Kingdom as a result of this vaccine scare. And indeed we know that you will see much worse outbreaks than you’re getting—you ain’t seen nothing yet when it comes to measles outbreaks in the United States.”