With great power comes great responsibility
For that power can influence a large segment of the population. British doctor Andrew Wakefield, the origin of the anti-vaccine movement by suggesting MMR vaccines played a role in developing autism spectrum disorder in children, was accused of dishonesty and irresponsibility last week by the General Medical Council.
The Guardian’s story (UK news outlet) reports the GMC accusing Wakefield of conducting unnecessary and invasive tests on children after receiving conditional approval for his hypothesis from the Royal Free committee. The article lists other ethical violations conducted by Wakefield, including tests and procedures that were unnecessary for the study subjects’ health and failing to include details of his studies, such as funding. The GMC will make a ruling in April. If Wakefield is found guilty of professional misconduct, his medical license could be stripped.
We’ve already seen the damage caused by supposed the MMR vaccine/autism link, despite several major studies proving the contrary. Wakefield’s theory caused a sudden drop in MMR vaccinations in the United Kingdom and a mumps outbreak soon followed. West of the Atlantic, faces of the cure autism movement, including Jenny McCarthy, voice concerns about vaccinations causing autism. Before you brand these people idiots, it’s perfectly healthy to express skepticism in the face of presented evidence (the global warming bombshell during the December Copenhagen summit reminded us of the shortcuts people take to fit their argument). As I mentioned last summer when I talked about a Jenny McCarthy profile article, skepticism makes sure the science is right.
Is it surprising Wakefield’s ruling drew many protesters who still support him? When you apply the skepticism argument, hardly. The ruling came 12 years after Wakefield first proposed a link, which left a lot of time to get a movement behind him. Complicating the message is the timing of the MMR vaccine. The shot is administered around 18 months of age for a child, which is also the time symptoms of autism begin to appear in children. With an indisputable cause nowhere in sight, parents or relatives who don’t fully process the situation often point fingers at the most recent event in the timeline, which is very likely MMR or another vaccine. Parents concerned about immunizations often claim their children were developing normally until they received a shot, even though no link has been established.
In the short-term, the story got some press in local and national outlets in the United States, but I don’t see a major shift vacating the idea that booster shots and autism share a link. Cable news and online columns contribute to a massive harvest where viewers can pick their interests, tuning out any argument that confronts those viewpoints. Until a cause is found, I expect those behavioral patterns to appear with the anti-vaccine movement inside the autism community. However, the accusations against Wakefield also serve as proof that healthy skepticism is effective; when someone presents a theory that has little to no scientific credence, the drawing behind the theory may not be complete. Going further on the ethical road, we can point to a disease outbreak caused by a decrease in shots in the UK. If a link does exist, is saving a child from a developmental disability worth the risk of contracting a disease that is completely preventable?