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Just a Little Prick

Published: September 25, 2010

The scientific community has won a battle that favors reason over fear.

On August 27th, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit upheld a ruling denying that a link exists between childhood vaccinations and autism.

Will this put an end to the debate? Probably not. A recent study shows that one in four parents thinks that vaccines can cause autism. These parents’ fears are understandable. Autism is a treatable, but ultimately incurable disease that can wreak havoc on families. Most autistic children will never be able to fully integrate into society. Many may require some sort of support for their entire lives. That scares me, and I don’t even have children. Unfortunately for public health, when we as a society become fearful, we sometimes seem to abandon reason.

In 1998 California banned smoking in bars and restaurants, while biologists successfully sequenced the genome of the bacteria that causes syphilis. 1998 also marked the publication of a study suggesting a correlation between vaccines and autism as Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published his study in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

Dr. Wakefield originally stated that he could not confirm that the MMR vaccine could be determined to be the cause of autism. He did try to establish a correlation, however. The article itself was more or less ignored at first. It received only 122 news stories globally. Wakefield could have left it at that, but several years later he felt it necessary to revisit the study. He wrote several review articles that came to more drastic conclusions.

Note dear reader that a review article in a journal is not the same as a study. Dr. Wakefield’s drastic new conclusions were based on the same inconclusive experiments he had previously done. His more drastic conclusions gained the media support he apparently craved, and as a result thousands of British parents refused to vaccinate their children. This resulted in many hospitalizations of children, while at least three deaths from an entirely preventable disease.

Due to the serious nature of Dr. Wakefield’s claim additional studies were warranted. Eighteen more studies were, in fact, done by universities, non-profit organizations, and the United States and British governments. Not one of these many studies verified Wakefield’s claims as none could reproduce his results.

In science, reproducibility is what validates findings. Dr. Wakefield vehemently adhered to the conclusions he had drawn despite the lack of corroboration from many other studies. This is the mark of fraud and quackery.

In 2004, the Institute of Medicine, a non-profit NGO (and member of the United States National Academies) published a report analyzing the evidence from these 18 studies to conclude that: “the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship” between both the MMR vaccine and thimerosal (a preservative), and autism.

After this report was published ten of the twelve original authors of the Wakefield study retracted their positions. This was a good move on their part considering what followed: a report by Brian Deer of The Sunday Times of London uncovered significant corruption.

It turned out that Dr. Wakefield had undisclosed conflicts of interest when he began work on his study. He was on the payroll of two lawyers representing parents of children with autism. Dr. Wakefield has now founded an institute in America dedicated to proving he is right. The British, by-the-way yanked his medical license.

After this was published, The Lancet, made an official statement noting that they would have not published the paper had they been aware of this conflict of interest. The original study had been repudiated by everyone involved with it save Dr. Wakefield and one colleague. Why then, is the controversy still raging today?

I am not an expert on mass psychology so I’ll refrain from speculating.

I will also resist commenting on the appropriateness of establishing scientific truths by courts of law.

This ruling will make it hard to for panicked parents and sleazy lawyers to combine un-harmoniously to sue vaccine manufacturers. Denied their source of money this will surely help dry up the efforts of those who have done so much harm to date. Well, maybe. Fearful people will sometimes believe what they wish to believe, but this ruling by the court of appeals in favor of reason is welcome news