I Want Your Fear: How Andrew Wakefield Changed the Vaccination Conversation through Greed and Deception
The anti-vaccine movement has now hit fever pitch and is encroaching on daily life in American culture. A whooping cough epidemic that swept through the U.S. not long ago was dubbed the worst in 70 years, according to the California Department of Health. San Diego was hardest hit with over 1,800 cases reported up to December 2014. This didn’t have to happen. An available vaccine of high efficacy has already proven itself in combating the problem time and time again.
In January at Disneyland, there was an outbreak of measles that has now spread across country borders to Canada, and in professional hockey, an outbreak of mumps claimed victims like Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Outbreaks like these are also easily preventable with an efficacious vaccine that is widely available.
Even though vaccines have been distributed for decades and are available, many people, and especially parents, are choosing not to vaccinate, but why? Some say this is due largely to the fear that vaccines aren’t safe and can cause severe brain developmental issues like autism. But where did this notion come from so suddenly after all these decades of people being vaccinated?
Let’s take a step back and look at the very source of all the anti-vaccine hysteria, which, sadly, was started out of greed and is based on data that was neither scientific nor honest. In fact, it was completely fabricated. The problem is that far too many people bought it hook, line, and sinker. The year was 1996, and a newly minted medical doctor in England, Andrew Wakefield, worked in concert with others to develop a business plan where they would create a company around a diagnostic test to detect measles in patients with an inflammatory bowel condition we know today as Crohn’s disease. He devised a plan where he and his associates would put together a scientific paper stating that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes dangerously severe reactions in the body, including autism in children.
I’d like to point out here that Wakefield is a medical doctor. He’s not a research scientist, an immunologist, or even a vaccine scientist. To put it bluntly, he was completely out of his field of intellectual expertise. Nevertheless, to this day, many who see the “Dr.” next to his name immediately give him a pass on telling people what is safe and what is not safe from a vaccine perspective. This non sequitur is a lot like a football coach claiming he knows everything about coaching hockey when, in fact, the two sports require distinctly different areas of expertise. Unfortunately, those driven by confirmation bias or the unwillingness to do accurate research might think, “Well, he is a coach, after all. That’s good enough for me!”
Banking on public fear, Wakefield and his group produced a falsified scientific paper claiming that the MMR vaccine is unsafe and causes autism and Crohn’s disease. Meanwhile, he had covertly created an application to patent the test for detecting the measles virus. Logic here says that many in Western countries do get the MMR vaccine, and of course a test for the measles virus will come back positive in most people regardless of whether or not they have autism or Crohn’s. Specifically, a piece of the measles virus is, by default, in the vaccine. This doesn’t mean that the vaccine causes measles. The correlation Wakefield proposed is patently false and holds no scientific weight. Wakefield managed to get his paper, loaded with fabricated data, published in the respected British medical journal The Lancet. Despite The Lancet’s subsequent retraction, considerable damage had already been done.
Expecting the inevitable hysteria that would follow, Wakefield planned to sit back, let the anti-vaccine movement catch fire, and then launch his diagnostic test in an effort to make millions of dollars and claim the rights to develop a “safer” MMR vaccine. In short, all this vaccine hysteria began due to a cunning man with medical backing who wanted to make money through fear-mongering. To nearly everyone’s discredit, he established this scam through flawed reasoning and false data he invented out of thin air when he wasn’t even a scientist to begin with. No more, no less, and it worked to a stunning and devastating degree.
As soon as Jenny McCarthy went on public TV news and told viewers that vaccines caused her son’s autism, this fear was given a face and identity. Vaccine rates plummeted in the U.S. despite the real work by real vaccine scientists all over the world whose work, before and after the Wakefield paper, showed time and again that vaccines were no danger to the public in their inherent contents or the preservatives they contain. However, once fear is instilled in a culture, it is very difficult to remove.
Recent research on the psychology of anti-vaxxers (those staunchly opposed to vaccination) shows that the more scientific proof you show them that vaccines are indeed safe, the more they might actually mistrust the vaccine. So, one can’t even argue a point with solid facts when fear controls the minds of smart people who choose to willfully ignore logically reasoned and rigorously tested science. It is simply a lose-lose situation and one that could easily have dire consequences for the health of potentially millions of people in the years to come. Needless to say, those opposed to vaccination put the health of the very people they are trying to protect at considerable risk–their own children.
Ryan Henderson works for Kyowa Hakko Kirin in La Jolla, California in the Immunobiology group, where he and his colleagues focus on retooling the immune system in the fight against autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s and lupus. He worked previously in the Department of Vaccine Discovery at the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and Johnson and Johnson’s oncology vaccine group. He is also an Associate Professor of Biology at Mount San Jacinto College, based in Riverside County, California. He holds a Bachelor’s in Biology and a Master’s in Biology, both from California State University-San Marcos, with emphasis on Immunology and Virology.