What if Wakefield was Right?

Added on Monday 2 Jul 2012

In 1970, my parents failed to give me the measles jab.

I got measles.
I got bowel disease.
I got autism.
Ever since I, an adult with autism, heard about the autism/MMR jab controversy which Andrew J. Wakefield, a former gastro-enterologist at the Royal Free Hospital, London, started with a 1998 article in The Lancet (since retracted) which speculated that there might be a link between measles, bowel disease and autism, I’ve wondered if, despite everything, Wakefield might have been right.
What if Wakefield was correct in his original suspicion that there was a link between the measles virus, bowel disease and autism in children like myself, with the onset of symptoms sometimes coming after vaccination with the new measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) jab?
However, Wakefield made it perfectly clear that:
We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are underway that may help to resolve this issue.
                                 (Lancet, 28th February 1998, later retracted)
According to Wakefield’s original article, of the twelve children he and his team assessed, nine had autism and the parents of eight children had noticed the onset of behavioural symptoms after their children received the MMR jab.
Wakefield’s article never even said there was any explicit link between MMR and autism, and merely ended with the reasonable suggestion that:
Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.
However, despite this reasonable statement, the article provoked a storm of controversy which ultimately led to Wakefield’s resignation from the Royal Free Hospital and removal from the Medical Register, plummeting levels of inoculations which led to more cases of the measles and a General Medical Council (GMC) investigation. Wakefield now lives and works in the United States.
There were complex allegations that Wakefield had acted dishonestly by neither disclosing conflicts of interest to The Lancet nor coming clean on the fact that, previous to his worrying assessment of the all-in-one triple shot MMR jab, he had applied for a patent on a single-shot measles vaccine, which if largely used instead of MMR would have made Wakefield very large sums of money…
However, on December 18th 2001 Edward Heathcote Amory of the Daily Mail said:
I spent a day with a GP in West London who said many doctors in the National Health Service were on a financial incentive scheme which would involve them losing several thousand pounds a year in taxpayers’ money if any of their child patients didn’t have the MMR jab.
Amory had previously seen the Government go out of its way to insist that mad cow disease (BSE) could not be communicated to humans, and as it turned out that BSE could in fact be communicated to humans, had become sceptical of Government assurances re the safety of new medical products such as MMR…
He had his son inoculated with separate single-shot jabs
Furthermore, in 2006 Dr Peter Fletcher (formerly Chief Scientific Officer at the Department of Health and medical assessor to the Committee on the Safety of Medicines), who had (according to The Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail of 5th and 7th February 2006, respectively) agreed to be an expert witness for lawyers of the affected children, and who had studied thousands of documents about the MMR issue, said that he had seen:
‘A steady accumulation of evidence’ from scientists worldwide that the measles, mumps and rubella jab is causing brain damage in certain children.
But he added: ‘There are very powerful people in positions of great authority in Britain and elsewhere who have staked their reputations and careers on the safety of MMR and they are willing to do almost anything to protect themselves.’
This from the man who, according to the Daily Mail of 7th February 2006, “had responsibility for deciding whether new vaccines were safe.”
So Andrew Wakefield could have been a rogue, or a slightly naïve man who simply believed that his ultimate responsibility was the health and welfare of children.
A statement he made in his defence of his original article particularly impressed me:
The approach of the clinical scientists should reflect the first and most important lesson learnt as a medical student—to listen to the patient or the patient's parent, and they will tell you the answer. Accordingly, we have now investigated 48 children with developmental disorder in whom the parents said “my child has a problem with his/her bowels which I believe is related to their autism”. Hitherto, this claim had been rejected by health professionals with little or no attempt to investigate the problem. The parents were right. They have helped us to identify a new inflammatory bowel disease that seems to be associated with their child's developmental disorder. This is a lesson in humility that, as doctors, we ignore at our peril. In many cases, the parents associated onset of behavioural symptoms in their child with MMR vaccine. Were we to ignore this because it challenged the public-health dogma on MMR vaccine safety?
                                      (Lancet, 21st March 1998, not retracted)
Those in power often lack humility and, exactly as Dr Fletcher warned, are often willing to do almost anything to protect themselves.
Another detail nearly lost in controversy’s storm was also made clear in the Lancet article of 21st March 1998:
As they expound the virtues of MMR vaccine, public-health officials would do well to reflect upon the fact that published pre-licensure studies of MMR vaccine safety have been restricted to 3 weeks. For three live viruses given in combination at a different dose, route, strain, and age, compared with the normal pattern of exposure of these viruses, 3 weeks seems woefully inadequate.
Apparently, the MMR jab hadn’t even received enough testing…
Nevertheless, Wakefield was comprehensively discredited, vaccination rates picked up and the world (including this autistic author) went on its weary way.
Then, on 16th June 2012, the Daily Mail reported that a provincial court in Rimini, Italy, had ruled that Valentino Bocca, who received the MMR jab at 14 months and promptly developed autism, had indeed developed the disorder because of the MMR jab.
According to the Mail report:
…Antonio Barboni, a doctor of forensic medicine and appointed by the judge to independently advise the court, wrote a report saying that ‘in the absence of any other pre-existing conditions’ it is a ‘reasonable scientific probability’ that Valentino’s autism can be ‘traced back to the administration of the MMR vaccine … by the health authority.’
Dr Barboni’s findings were endorsed by two other eminent doctors who examined Valentino, investigated his medical background, and gave evidence to the court hearing.
Judge Lucio Ardigo, awarding compensation to the family, agreed. He said it was ‘conclusively established’ that Valentino had suffered from an ‘autistic disorder associated with medium cognitive delay’ and his illness, as Dr Barboni stated, was linked to receiving the jab.
This, you may think, is the end of the article and perhaps the end of a rabble-rousing argument, but here’s the rub.
Basically, all Wakefield ever said was that there might be a link between measles, bowel disease and autism.
I’m not sure there’s a link. I acknowledge the possibility that Wakefield may indeed have been dishonest and the GMC investigation justified. I think the MMR jab is probably safe.
But I know I got measles, bowel disease and autism.
And nor do I have any illusions about what those in power are willing to do to protect themselves.
Considering my own experience and the landmark Rimini judgement, I still suspect there may be a link.
The Rimini judgement may be the first legal anti-MMR statement in this controversy.
My own statement, which you have just read, may be the first statement made by a person with autism on the subject.
I would most surely say, as Andrew Wakefield did before me, that further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to the MMR vaccine.