Disclaimer: Any information obtained here is not to be construed as medical OR legal advice. The decision to vaccinate and how you implement that decision is yours and yours alone.
Who is this man Wakefield?
He’s a doctor of gastroenterology, the head of cutting edge research groups, writer of more than a hundred papers on the subject, honored and recognized by his peers. Not only that, he’s got a good sense of humour, cultured British accent, good looks, and the body of a rugby player.
There’s plenty not to like, at least according to his critics.
“I couldn’t say into your microphone what they called me,” he told Spectrum at the Autism 2000 conference in Kamloops, British Columbia. “It’s not been very nice.”
What Wakefield has done is ignite a controversy about autism and vaccination. His research has uncovered a possible problem with a triple vaccine given to children at around 15 months… the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine, or MMR. In a nutshell, Wakefield’s found what may be links between the measles virus and the sudden onset of a form of autism in children who had seemed to be developing normally.
As a result of his studies, MMR vaccination rates have dropped in Britain and Ireland… and he’s been labelled a liar, a scientific cheat, and much, much, worse. His colleagues have distanced themselves from him. His bosses told him to stop talking. The Centre for Disease Control tore a strip off his research.
And the evidence supporting him just won’t go away easily.
Wakefield didn’t know much at all about autism four years ago. That’s when he was working as a surgeon at the University of Toronto, studying small intestine transplant techniques. And that’s when his moderately promising career, he jokes, went seriously off the rails.
How does a gastroenterologist end up in the middle of a global immunology debate? “Inflammatory bowel diseasesis about immunology, so one has been involved for a long time” he says. “You learn about the subject as you need to, as they become relevant to your discipline.”
The study of infectious diseases of the bowel and intestine. Crippling diseases, like Krohn’s and colitis. Wakefield had also been researching the link between Krohn’s disease, a bowel inflammation, and the measles virus. After publishing research paper on the subject, he began getting strange calls from parents… parents of children with autism. Their children also had chronic bowel problems. Could it be possible, they asked him, that their children’s mental and physical disturbances could also be caused by the measles virus?
Wakefield didn’t know. In fact, he hardly knew anything at all about autism. But he was willing to listen to parents.
“Everything I know about autism, I know from listening to parents,” he says. “I was told by my mentor to listen to the patient, or the patient’s parents… the answers you are looking for they have.”
Wakefield began to hear a strange tale… that children, who seemed to be perfectly normal developmentally, began to regress quickly after receiving the MMR vaccine shot.
Wakefield says these parents were told by their physicians that there could be no possible link between their children’s autism and their bowels. Parents knew better… many of their children suffer from some kind of bowel disorder.
“The first thing one does as a physician is take a history, and do an examiniation of the patient,” says Wakefield. “And the histories were consistent.”
Wakefield decided to look… and couldn’t believe what he found. There was the measles virus in the gut of children with autism… who had never had the measles.
In February 1998, having seen 11 more patients with identical symptoms, he published his results… and his theory… in the Lancet, one of the world’s leading medical papers. He and his colleagues described how they discovered this same pattern of inflammation of the bowel, which they believed was part of a new disease, autistic enterocolitis, in all 12 children. They reported that parents of eight of the children said that the youngsters’ behaviour began to deteriorate after their MMR vaccinations. While there was no direct evidence of a link, Dr. Wakefield said it must be properly investigated. He stressed he was not anti-vaccine, and only wanted safe vaccination programmes for children.
It was still enough to ignite a firestorm. Wakefield was quickly accused of undermining the public’s confidence in vaccines, and putting children’s lives at risk. They said his sampling of subjects and definition of the disease was ‘probably not accurate’. Panels of experts who reviewed his work said there wasn’t enough evidence to support a link.
“The link is just an association that people have made because of the fact that autism is diagnosed between one and two years of age most commonly and that is around the same time period that the MMR vaccination is given,” says Dr. Mark Rosenberg of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Wakefield has dug deeper, and examined more than 160 children. His latest research seems to mirror his first finding… that something is happening to put the measles virus in the guts of kids with autism… kids who seemed fine before receiving their shots.
Wakefield, however, is no anti-vaccine advocate. He insists his research is only raising questions… important questions, that the vaccine establishment should at least consider. He points out that there has never been a problem with measles vaccine alone… that the problem may lie in combining three viruses in a single vaccine.
But that’s been enough to bring up the heavy guns against him. Millions of children are vaccinated with MMR every year, and public health officials say breaking up the vaccine into its three components would result in less coverage, and a return to the days of widespread childhood disease.
Dr. Brent Taylor has been one critic of Wakefield’s work. A senior colleague of Wakefield’s at the same London medical school,
Taylor has done the largest study to date on the subject, with about 500 autistic children in London. He found no relation between the children’s vaccination dates and the onset of their disease. His work was hailed by the vaccine authorities, world wide, as the absolute proof, and the final word, that indeed there was no MMR/Autism link. However, parents of children with autism were not convinced, and many researchers rejected Taylor’s methodology and conclusions. No large-scale independent studies have been carried out in Canada or the United States.
The controversy continues. Japanese laboratories are beginning to make the same findings as Wakefield, while the biggest names in the public health community, like the CDC in the States, attack Wakefield’s research. Wakefield says he’s simply calling for more study. He agrees no genetic ‘fingerprint’ has been taken identifying the measles virus in autistic children’s gut as the MMR vaccine virus. That’s the next big step. Laboratories are now urgently working on sequencing the genetic make-up of the virus to see if it matches the vaccine strain. The answer may come sometime this year.
If Wakefield’s findings prove to be correct the implications will be enormous. It will suggest that while MMR may be safe for the vast majority of children, some – perhaps a minority who are somehow genetically susceptible – may be seriously damaged by it.
“The important message is that there may be an association. We have yet to prove it is a causal association or not,” he says. “But we don’t want Measles, Mumps or Rubella to come back- we still need vaccination. It’s just that the way we do that that is crucial. Until we know, there should be a single vaccine system.”
Wakefield’s been urged to do more research, have a larger sample, to work with double-blind tests, to do more standard research to confirm his theories.
He’s also speaking around the world. Local pediatricians turned out in force at the conference in Kamloops to hear Andrew Wakefield speak. They were also ready to challenge his stand.
But at least one doctor said Wakefield’s presentation had made him question his own views on the subject.
“I may have to join Pediatricians Anonymous,” he quipped.