Twenty years after his discredited paper linked autism to MMR, the doctor – who had been struck from the UK medical register – is a prominent figure in the US and terrifyingly influential worldwide.
Not many doctors have been as discrediting and marginalized as Andrew Wakefield in the UK. They were later seen smiling at an inauguration ball for a US president and then discovered that they were actually dating Elle Macpherson.
But he is. Wakefield was almost expelled from Britain. The gastroenterologist was fired from his job and had his scientific paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism retracted in the medical journal Lancet. He was also removed from the medical register in 2010. His disappearance to the USA was interpreted as a loss of credibility. Even though his name was frequently mentioned, he was considered a lost force—his anti-MMR views spread around the globe and led to many parents refusing the vaccine. Wakefield’s beliefs also caused measles outbreaks in countries all over the world.
It was well-known that he was visiting Texas to meet with people who agreed with him on conspiracy and vaccines. He was not an openly known figure. Donald Trump was elected president of the United States in 2016.
The anti-establishment presidency could see the anti-vaccine crusader, who has been more entrenched after his beating at the hands of prominent scientists around the globe, back in the spotlight. His new visibility could make his arguments more persuasive. In January 2017, Trump was quoted saying that he contemplated the overthrow of the (pro-vaccine US) medical establishment at an inaugural ball. “What is needed now is a massive shakeup at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This would be a massive shakeup. This needs to change drastically.
Robert F Kennedy Jr, a vaccine skeptic, announced that he would head up a federal panel on vaccine safety set up by Trump. Although it didn’t happen, the possibility sent shockwaves through the medical community.
It was revealed this week that the celebrity-smitten US society had accepted Wakefield. He is now separated from Carmel, his wife, who stood by him throughout the UK disaster, and he is now dating Elle Macpherson. Elle Macpherson is a supermodel and has her nutrition brand. He was snapped kissing Elle Macpherson this week on an organic farm in Miami.
Wakefield did not run and hide. His supporters hailed him from the beginning as a hero who had been victimized by the UK’s medical establishment, which they believed was in hock with big pharma. Anti-vaxxers insist that the drug industry, which is only interested in making profits and not people, cannot be trusted with the truth.
Wakefield’s average uncertainty as a scientist embarking upon research and wondering what their findings will reveal must have been crushed by the torrent of criticisms over the Lancet study. Wakefield and others around him believe a conspiracy exists to force vaccines on our children. This conspiracy has been funded and driven by wealthy pharmaceutical companies and those who make their living.
The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals in the world, published the critical paper 20 years ago in February 1998. The dean of the Royal Free hospital in London, where Wakefield was working, tried to dispel any speculations about the paper’s implications at the press conference. Only eight children were featured in the article – it was a series of cases, not a trial. It claimed to have found a link between measles mumps rubella vaccine (MMR), intestinal problems, and autism in children. We know very little about autism’s causes. This paper was explosive. The parents recalled how their autistic children typically developed until they received the MMR. The symptoms usually first appear around that age, regardless of whether immunization was given.
Wakefield could have accepted the criticisms of the medical establishment and carried on with his promising career. He refused to give up. The Medical Research Council was quickly tasked with determining if there might be an MMR problem in March. However, it refused to back down. Wakefield continued to fight, offering papers from himself and his collaborators to support the thesis. They were rejected. He quit his job at Royal Free in 2001. The Sunday Times published allegations that the Legal Aid Board paid Wakefield to look for evidence for autistic parents suing vaccine companies for compensation. He was removed from the medical register in 2010 and banned from practicing medicine – the worst thing that could happen to a doctor.
He was already in New York reviling the British establishment, insisting that he was right, and was soon back home. He told me via phone that the General Medical Council’s decision was predetermined. “It seemed they had reached this decision long ago, well before the evidence was heard correctly. This is how the system handles dissent. This is how you discredit, isolate, and show others, doctors and scientists, that this behavior is unacceptable. He said that he was examining vaccine safety questions.
Many vaccine skeptics are living in the US. Parents of autistic children searching for answers should not be surprised to find them. Wakefield worked with businesses and charities that are autism-related in Texas. He was a registered physician and became the director of Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin, Texas. However, his license was revoked.
The Strategic Autism Initiative was then established the following year by Wakefield. He ran it alongside Polly Tommey (a British mother with an autistic child), who has been a key collaborator and ally. Wakefield also created the Autism Media Channel in Austin. This channel makes videos claiming a link between autism, the MMR vaccine, and other topics.
Vaxxed, the most well-known film of the group, was directed by Wakefield and was presented at the Tribeca film festival premiere by Robert De Niro (the father of an autistic son). It claims that the CDC hid the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield stated that the institute needed to be reformed at the Trump inaugural ball. De Niro pulled the film after a furor broke out and talked with scientists.
Many parents in Europe and the US continue to avoid the MMR vaccine because they fear it will cause autism. This is despite all the assurances from the World Health Organization (WHO) and other public health authorities. The doubts surrounding the MMR vaccine in the American-Somali community that had witnessed an increase in autism cases in Minnesota caused an outbreak of measles last spring. Wakefield was a former visitor to the community six to seven years ago and had discussed the risks of autism with them.
According to WHO, the number of measles cases in Europe rose fourfold last year. The WHO reported a fourfold increase in measles cases in Europe in 2017, with significant outbreaks occurring in one in four countries. After infection rates tripled in England in one year, festivalgoers were advised to get the vaccine. “Over 20,000 measles cases and 35 deaths in 2017 are something we cannot accept,” Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO’s regional director for Europe at the time, said. The worst affected countries were Ukraine, Romania, and Italy.
The decline in confidence in the MMR vaccine’s effectiveness was the loss of trust. Although there are plans to eradicate measles from the globe, it is impossible if confidence in immunization programs and vaccines is weakened. Gavi CEO Dr. Seth Berkley claims vaccination has yet to fully recover in developed countries since Wakefield’s original claims. He also says that the anti-vaccination campaigners he continues leading are “endangering children’s health around the globe.”
Social media and the internet have spread conspiracy theories and doubts about vaccines all over the globe. Wakefield himself has stated the same. He said social media had provided an alternative to mainstream media’s “failings.” Another phrase that could have been taken from a tweet by President Obama. Wakefield stated, “In this country, it’s become very polarised now… No one knows what to believe.” “So people are increasingly turning to social media.”
The scientific establishment is in a difficult position. Wakefield and his supporters insist that mainstream science is false and won’t be persuaded to change their minds. All the conspiracy theories about the anti-vax movement can be found on the internet. They can only be boosted further by Wakefield’s apparent acceptance into the top echelons of American society.