Discredited autism study caused suffering, reporter says
TORONTO - The British journalist who spent seven years investigating a study that triggered fears about autism being linked to the MMR vaccine says parents of children with autism have suffered because of the widely discredited research.
Last month, the British Medical Journal published three lengthy articles by Brian Deer detailing his findings and experience, along with an editorial declaring the 1998 paper by Andrew Wakefield a fraud. The Lancet, which published the original paper, retracted it last year.
"The people who are really suffering are parents of children with autism and other neurological disorders who've fallen for the idea that it was their own fault that their child has got autism." Deer said during a visit to Toronto. "They've seen a television program, or have read something in the newspaper that makes them think, 'Well, could it be the vaccine?' And they blame themselves."
"The falsehoods that have been spun to them, I think are really appalling. I really feel for them. And some, of course, become very angry and bitter and hostile sometimes towards pediatricians, sometimes even towards journalists and others who try to explain the situation."
It has been a long haul for Deer that began as a routine assignment in September 2003 for a British television program, meant to take two or three weeks. As he sat in a Toronto restaurant this week, sipping coffee and occasionally thumping the table for emphasis, Deer talked about how along the way, he and the television company Channel 4 were sued for libel by Wakefield.
"For two years, this lawsuit went on, and I can tell you, if there's one thing that focuses your mind on somebody, it's if they're suing you," he said, explaining why he stuck with the project for such a long time.
"They used to send motorcyclists around to my house with brown envelopes containing estimates for the legal bills that I would have to pay if they won the case."
Wakefield, for his part, continues to defend the research, saying in a recent interview posted on naturalnews.com that the data "were faithfully reproduced in the Lancet paper, and they were made in the most scrupulous, meticulous way."
Deer looked troubled when asked about the low point, or if he ever wanted to give up, as the saga unfolded.
"No one has actually asked me that question directly before and I can't give you the direct answer because, yeah, there has been things which ...," he said, his face clouding over and his voice trailing off.
"I will say this: it's a very, very political area. And it's an area where people who you deal with professionally have often made up their mind in advance and expect you to concur with their mindset. I have never published anything or taken any position about whether any pharmaceutical product may or may not cause a particular problem. It sounds odd, I suppose, but whether vaccines can or can't cause autism is not something I feel it's for me to arbitrate on."
Rather, Deer said, he has told his story -- reporting as a journalist -- about how the world was led to believe that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine could cause autism.
"I'm not working for government, or industry or public health doctors. I'm not campaigning for anything."
As the lawsuit was going on, the General Medical Council began an extensive hearing and eventually found Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly in doing his research. Wakefield, who's now living in Texas, was stripped of his licence to practise medicine in Britain.
Deer was relieved that the council had gone over evidence in great detail.
"There is always a possibility that the view we have of the world around us is that no matter how many times we've been over the same material and looked at it, and worked it all out -- could I be seeing this wrong?" he said. "I was greatly relieved, not least because if I had been wrong, I would have lost my home."
The 1998 study looked at 12 developmentally challenged children referred to a pediatric gastroenterology unit in London. Most of the parents associated the onset of behavioural symptoms with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. The Lancet's retraction said several elements of the paper were incorrect, in particular claims that children were consecutively referred and that investigations were approved by the local ethics committee.
Among other things, Deer's analysis in the BMJ found that five children had behavioural problems before getting the MMR jab, even though the research paper described them as being normal before the shot.
Last month on CNN, Wakefield described Deer as a hit man brought in to take him down because the pharmaceutical industry is concerned about adverse reactions to vaccines occurring in children.
Wakefield has also alleged the British Medical Journal has been hijacked by a freelance journalist who is not an expert "in any of these fields."
The case has sparked debate in Britain about the integrity of scientific research, Deer said.
"I think it's a warning to scientists and the public that anonymized publishing of scientific data is something that just can't be taken on trust any more," he said.
"If it's the case that we want kitchens in restaurants to be subjected to inspections from time to time, shouldn't it be the case that scientific laboratories where research that could potentially impact on the future of humanity itself, because we're going into an era of genetic manipulations, stem cell technologies, all kinds of technologies which intervene in the life process itself, shouldn't we expect there to be at least a chance that somebody who was involved in serious misconduct could be caught?"
As for medical journals, he said they are just another kind of magazine competing in the marketplace and peer review can't tell whether information has been made up, but only if it's plausible or implausible.
He noted that authors who submit the papers aren't paid, nor are peer reviewers, and journals can make "enormous amounts" of money. If the researchers are successful in getting published, they are more likely to advance at their academic institutions.
"These medical journals live parasitically off the back of these institutions, and they're promoted by the mainstream media," he said.
"If you look at the time and the colossal amount of money it took to get to the bottom of the MMR issue, you have to wonder about all the other areas of science that perhaps couldn't command that level of interest and investment," he said.
"The investigation of the Wakefield issue -- disciplinary hearings, lawsuits, journalism -- probably totally cost about $10 million. Now could $10 million be applied to answering the question about the ultimate safety of -- I don't know -- genetically modified food, mobile telephones or climate change, or lesser subjects?"