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“Prisoners of their sources”

April 21st, 2011 · No Comments · Easy marks

After accepting Specialist Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards, Brian Deer told his fellow scribes:

“I’d just like to say that this award does have my name on it but in many ways I think this is an award for the industry as a whole. Because this is a story where some of us, some of my colleagues, our colleagues I think got the story wrong and became prisoners of their sources for over a long period of time. And I think this is an award for an industry that gets it right and an industry that I am very proud to be a party to.”

Disgraced UK gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield’s shoddy Lancet study would have passed unnoticed were it not for the help of credulous editors and reporters. The scare headlines did Wakefield’s work for him, causing needless panic about the MMR vaccine in the UK, and about vaccines in general in the US.

Not all UK reporters and editors have learned their lesson. The Daily Mail recently went retro on its readers with the headline Scientists fear MMR link to autism:

New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children.

The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link.
Now a team from the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in North Carolina are examining 275 children with regressive autism and bowel disease – and of the 82 tested so far, 70 prove positive for the measles virus.

The “new American research” reporter Sally Beck quotes is an unpublished poster presentation from five years ago. Becks’ 2011 article is a word for word reprint of article than ran in 2006.

If that’s not enough, the “studies” primary investigator told Clinical Psychiatry News in 2006 that contrary to Beck’s interpretation, the “study” does not confirm Wakefield’s findings.

MONTREAL — Measles found in the intestines of a cohort of autistic children with bowel disease should not be perceived as proof of an association between the measles vaccine and autism, Stephen J. Walker, Ph.D., stressed at the 5th International Meeting for Autism Research.

“We haven’t done anything to demonstrate that the measles virus is causing autism or even causing bowel disease. We have simply shown that there is measles virus in the guts of a large number of children who have regressive autism,” said Dr. Walker of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Walker is on the editorial board of AutismInsights, an online journal started in late 2009 by Andrew Wakefield. But Walker’s “measles in the gut” study remains unpublished.

An email to the Daily Mail, pointing out the errors and asking for a correction and retraction, drew this reply:

Thank you very much for your recent communication.

We receive a great deal of correspondence each day and, although I may not be able to respond to you personally, please rest assured that I do take the time to read all the emails I receive. Those intended for publication on the letters page will be considered carefully.

If you do not see your point of view in print, however, I hope you will appreciate it is only possible to publish a small percentage of the letters we receive.

Any emails deemed more appropriate for other departments will be forwarded for their consideration.

Thank you for your interest in the Daily Mail, I am grateful to you for taking the time to contact us.

Yours sincerely,

Daily Mail Readers’ Letters Editor

Another case of journalistic Stockholm syndrome comes to us from the Orange County Register, where editors corrected a two-year old story about the anti-vaccine movement’s favorite boogeyman, Dr. Paul Offit.

An OC Register article dated Aug. 4, 2008 entitled “Dr. Paul Offit Responds” contained several disparaging statements that Dr. Offit of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) made about CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson and her report. Upon further review, it appears that a number of Dr. Offit’s statements, as quoted in the OC Register article, were unsubstantiated and/or false. Attkisson had previously reported on the vaccine industry ties of Dr. Offit and others in a CBS Evening News report “How Independent Are Vaccine Defenders?” July 25, 2008.

False and unsubstantiated claims constitute the lingua franca of the anti-vaccine movement, so it’s alarming to see a newspaper accuse the evidence-based science community of doing the same. So what did Offit say that drew a correction, two years after the fact?

Offit told the OC Register that he provided CBS News “the details of his relationship, and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s relationship, with pharmaceutical company Merck.” However, documents provided by CBS News indicate Offit did not disclose his financial relationships with Merck, including a $1.5 million Hilleman chair he sits in that is co-sponsored by Merck.

The idea that an academic chair is something to sit in is as nonsensical as Attkisson’s recent “homologous recombinaltion tiniker” quote. The “Hilleman chair” is an endowment to fund research, and Offit has the right to direct the funds from the endowment. Merck’s control over how the money is spent ended when the pharmaceutical giant cut the check. The OC Register is imagining a conflict of interest where one doesn’t exist.

And then there’s this:

The CBS News documentation indicates Offit also did not disclose his share of past and future royalties for the Merck vaccine he co-invented.

The royalties that Offit received for the 25 years he and two other researchers spent developing Rotateq did not come from Merck. The patent is owned by CHOP and Wistar, which may sell or license them. Offit’s royalites, which were discontinued in the summer of 2009, came from his institution, not Merck. Once again the OC Register alleges a hidden connection which simply did not exist.

The OC Register needs to correct its correction, hopefully not two years from now.



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