Autism study fraud is a larger lesson, says reporter
CTV.ca News Staff
Published Thursday, January 6, 2011 3:07PM EST
The British journalist who helped expose the work of disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield as a "fraud" says the entire saga shows just how much medical science is based on trust.
"The takeaway lesson in all this is not just about vaccines; it's about the integrity of science, generally," Brian Deer told CTV News Channel Thursday.
Deer says when it comes to medical research, it's difficult for average citizens to evaluate the claims of doctors and reserachers.
"Science publications are all ‘anonymized': you don't know anything about the patients where the data comes from. You can't check it for yourself, unlike newspapers and broadcasting where other competitive organizations and the public generally can check if the facts are true," Deer said.
It was only through seven years of investigative work that Deer says he was able to debunk Wakefield's landmark 2003 study that tried to link the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine to autism.
On Wednesday, the editors of the British Medical Journal declared Wakefield's study "an elaborate fraud" based on the "falsification of data."
In an explosive series of articles, the BMJ editors said there is "no doubt" that Wakefield manipulated and even falsified his data to show a link between the vaccine and both autism and bowel disease.
The study, published in the medical journal Lancet in 1998 and retracted last February, spurred millions of parents around the world to choose not to vaccinate their children.
In the years since the study's publication, measles outbreaks have occurred across Europe and North America. In 2008, measles was declared endemic in England and Wales for the first time in more than a decade.
Deer says he knew right from the start that there was something wrong with Wakefield's study. He says he was asked to report on the doctor's research and found Wakefield reticent to answer questions.
"We put simple questions to him. He refused to be interviewed. He acted in a way that was plainly suspicious," Deer recalled.
Though the study was small -- only 12 children were included -- and many said the findings produced data of statistical insignificance, the research caused a huge fuss and raised parental worries about childhood vaccines that continue to this day. That's despite the medical community's vocal criticism of the study.
Deer notes it took seven years of investigation for the study to be fully debunked, as well as an investigation by Britain's General Medical Council (GMC), which launched its own probe.
The GMC eventually found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct and stripped him of his U.K. medical licence.
Deer says the entire ordeal shows how much damage poorly-done research can wreak and how much work and money needs to go to set things right again.
"You can imagine what else is going on that we just can't get to the bottom of," Deer said.