If disgraced UK gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield is displeased by his recent star turn on NBC Dateline, he only has himself to blame. After all, Wakefield asked for it. Literally.
(Wakefield) believed virus from the MMR vaccine traveled from the arm to the intestines, causing inflammation there, which led harmful proteins to enter the bloodstream and the brain, causing neurological impairment. He didn’t let the fact that he hadn’t identified these proteins stand in his way (and neither did the journal). The hypothesis became conventional wisdom and 10 years later we are cleaning up after the damage.
Wakefield’s lawyers, ANB has learned, contacted NBC News, and alternately threatened legal action and demanded that the network air their client’s side of the story. The network complied.
It’s not the first time that a bluff has backfired on Wakefield.
In 2004 he welcomed, even insisted, that the General Medical Council launch in investigation into his professional conduct. When the GMC followed through, Wakefield fled to the US.
That same year Wakefield sued UK’s Channel 4 for libel over reporter Brian Deer’s investigation. That led to a judge approving a motion for discovery that forced Wakefield to release more damning documents to Channel 4 and Brian Deer, further assisting the GMC’s inquiry. Wakefield later dropped his suit and paid Channel 4’s legal expenses.
So what was Wakers thinking when he demanded a sit-down interview with Matt Lauer, parts of which were packaged as “A Dose of Controversy” and aired to the nation Sunday night? The episode was produced by Amy Schmitz, who is Snyderman’s full-time producer. Schmitz formerly produced for Dr. Tim Johnson at ABC, another evidence-based health advocate who sees through vaccine charlatans.
Lauer’s report, though tepid at times, and confusing at others, should be welcomed by the public health community and pro-vaccine advocates. Fortunately, Lauer listened to Deer, and also Dr. Paul Offit, another leading Wakefield critic. Both men wasted no time getting to the point.
“This thing stank from the first day it appeared,” said Deer, who went on to explain Wakefield’s conflict of interests with a law firm that was suing makers of the MMR vaccines.
“I think (Wakefield) has done a tremendous amount of harm, and it’s amazing to me that he doesn’t accept the responsibility for that harm,” said Offit.
Curiously, Lauer stumbled throughout the piece, seemingly oblivious to the target rich environment that Wakefield had led him to. At one point, Wakefield asked Deer “In your opinion, how much did Wakefield’s lawyers pay him to perform the study?” The answer, $750,000, is not an opinion – it’s a matter of public record. Lauer also asked Deer “In your opinion, was Wakefield developing his own vaccine (in 1998)?” Wakefield admitted to Lauer that he was working on a vaccine, but that it was only to treat people already infected. That was a lie: claim 2 of Wakefield’s patent clearly states says it can be used as prophylaxis against measles. Lauer either didn’t know, or didn’t care.
Wakefield played the brave maverick doctor, and maintained that he was concerned by UK press coverage of his Lancet study. He said he didn’t know if vaccines cause autism, and he cited the precautionary principle – putting the interests of children first – as justification for breaking up the MMR series into individual shots.
The report’s low point came in the person of Dr. Bernadine Healy, who buttressed Wakefield’s claim that “other doctors” are backing his unsubstantiated and ludicrous claims. But Healy spoke in generalities and platitudes, and avoided concrete statements. She spoke of a “small subset” of children who might be hurt by vaccines that aren’t picked up of the large population studies. Does this mean she doubts the “autism epidemic” canard? Hard to say. As Sullivan at LBRB puts it:
Some will hear that and think, “children with autism, that’s the small subset” and the “take away” message will be, “she supports the idea of vaccines causing an epidemic of autism”. It’s possible that “small subset” means a small subset of autistics. In other words, she might be accepting the data that show vaccines haven’t caused an epidemic of autism. It’s possible that “small subset” is the very small subset of people who are injured by vaccines, some of whom are autistic and some of whom are not. In which case, what she said isn’t controversial at all.
We just can’t tell what she meant from what she said.
The report also suffers from the inclusion of Warrior Mothers, whom Lauer describes as “emotionally involved, desperate for answers”. But emotional, desperate parents function as human shields for the quack practitioners performing procedures of little value for large sums of money. We are introduced to the Kasemodels of Minnesota, who traveled with their autistic son to the Lourdes Shrine of Big Autism, Wakefield’s Thoughful House, where we watch the boy being sedated for an endoscopy. The procedure will cost the Kasemodels $4,500, to look for a disease that doesn’t exist. We hear the results – mild inflammation, but no evidence it is caused by vaccines. Our voyeuristic impulses fully sated, Lauer moves on. That’s a shame. With so many dots to connect, from rigged test results to preventable disease outbreaks to a growing quack cure industry, all we get is a cheap diagnosis, rather than Snyderman’s verdict from last winter – “This guy is a fraud”.
RangelMD chimes in:
Even though he “confronted” Dr. Wakefield with several of the accusations of fraud and conflict of interest that are now well known in association with this case, Mr. Lauer appeared to be more than content with Dr. Wakefield’s minimalist denials and stonewalling. The entire interview can be summed up thus:
Mr. Lauer: “What do you say to those who accuse you being a fraud?”
Dr. Wakefield: “I’m not a fraud.”
Mr. Lauer: “Well, OK then.”