AP medical writer Maria Cheng has the best story on Andrew Wakefield’s expulsion from the ranks of British doctors for his flawed study purporting to link the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine with autism. Cheng goes beyond the action against Wakefield and talks about the implications of his claims. She correctly notes that as a result of Wakefield’s study, “legions of parents abandoned the vaccine, leading to a resurgence of measles in Western countries where it had been mostly stamped out.”
Alas, parents took these steps without realizing that Wakefield’s study was flawed and his conclusion wrong. As the Wall Street Journal’s Jeannie Whalen put it, Wakefield’s “central claim — that there could be a link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine — has largely been discredited.” Nevertheless, the sense that there is something wrong with vaccine persists. Even today, as Cheng put it, “There are outbreaks across Europe every year and sporadic outbreaks in the U.S.”
Wakefield is not alone in culpability for this fiasco. The celebrities who lent their names to his cause have given it more attention than it deserved. In addition, as Rob Breakenridge noted today in the Calgary Herald, “The blame lies not only with those who have spread unjustified fears over the MMR vaccine, but also to those in the media who devoted far more coverage to Wakefield’s shoddy paper than to the numerous peer-reviewed studies which found no link.”
One other aspect of this issue that I have mentioned before is that the vaccines-cause-autism canard created more than just a public-health risk. It also expanded the U.S.’s vulnerability in our efforts to fight bioterror. Vaccines are a key component of our arsenal against a host of agents that our enemies could potentially weaponize, such as anthrax and smallpox. Effective vaccines and a populace willing to take those vaccines are essential to our ability to combat these threats.
Dr. Wakefield has a lot to answer for. The expulsion is a good step in the right direction, but it does not undo all of the damage that he did.