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.

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Ryan-HendersonRyan 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.

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10 Discussions on
“I Want Your Fear: How Andrew Wakefield Changed the Vaccination Conversation through Greed and Deception”
  • I know it’s convenient to associate those who question the vaccine risk/reward equation with people like Andrew Wakefield, since that helps portray them as ignorant conspiracy-theorists. But the things that really concern the pro-choicers (who happen to be, by and large, highly educated and informed) are the following:

    1) that vaccines don’t work all the time and aren’t 100% safe
    2) the existence of a vaccine injury compensation fund, which was formed long before the Wakefield paper and has since paid out billions of dollars to families who have proven in court that they were injured by vaccines,
    3) the numerous vaccine recalls due to adverse reactions,
    4) the ethically troubling conclusion that people who might be harmed by diseases are more important than people who have been harmed by vaccines,
    5) the US government’s persistent refusal to conduct a study of the health outcomes of the vaccinated vs unvaccinated,
    6) depriving Americans of their usual rights to “free and informed consent to an invasive medical procedure; accurate and complete information about vaccine ingredients and possible side effects; and the right to sue manufacturers and medical practitioners directly in the event of injury.” (See paper by Mary Holland of NYU), and
    7) censorship of the press on this topic by government officials, such as Kathleen Sebelius – HHS head, who said in 2010, “We have reached out to media outlets to try to get them to not give the views of these people [vaccine safety critics] equal weight in their reporting to what science has shown and continues to show about the safety of vaccines.”

    Failure to address any of these very valid concerns is no way to win over the hearts and minds of the ever-growing vaccine skeptics.

    • 1) that vaccines don’t work all the time and aren’t 100% safe

      -Nothing in the realm of human health and medicine works 100% of the time due to allelic differences in the human genome (DNA code). There’s no one size fits all hat that everyone can wear. Also, we cannot choose to ignore these scientific facts about mortality since the introduction of several vaccines.

      –Polio, Small Pox eliminated in Western countries, over 99%
      –Measles, mumps, rubella dropped by 99%
      –Whooping cough down 81%

      Nothing is 100% safe. Driving in your car is not safe, but we all do it. This is a red herring, but the truth is the same. Nothing is 100% safe, but those facts up there sure paint a better picture than a pandemic situation like in modern-day Syria and India where polio goes unchecked due to lack of vaccination. Polio = paralysis.

      2) the existence of a vaccine injury compensation fund, which was formed long before the Wakefield paper and has since paid out billions of dollars to families who have proven in court that they were injured by vaccines,

      -There are also victim compensation funds for NFL players who have brain injuries, but there’s still football. Toyota set up a compensation fund for victims in last year’s fatal accidents where the accelerators stuck and they crashed and died. There’s inherent risk in anything in life, but again, you cannot argue that these vaccinations don’t save millions of lives every year.

      3) the numerous vaccine recalls due to adverse reactions,

      -People also have reactions to peanuts, shellfish, cat/dog dander, and wheat. Recalls come from contaminated vegetables and meat all the time. People at some rate will always have a reaction to something that is put out into the human realm. The biology makes us that way. The sociology, however, makes people crazy.

      4) the ethically troubling conclusion that people who might be harmed by diseases are more important than people who have been harmed by vaccines,

      -This sounds like personal belief, and nowhere in the article is it mentioned that people harmed by disease are more important than people having adverse reactions to vaccines, or any medication for that matter.

      5) the US government’s persistent refusal to conduct a study of the health outcomes of the vaccinated vs unvaccinated,

      -Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.

      http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/G/cases-deaths.pdf

      6) depriving Americans of their usual rights to “free and informed consent to an invasive medical procedure; accurate and complete information about vaccine ingredients and possible side effects; and the right to sue manufacturers and medical practitioners directly in the event of injury.” (See paper by Mary Holland of NYU), and

      -Vaccines are not invasive. If your child gets measles because you didn’t vaccinate your child, and he or she contaminates my child, shouldn’t you be the one to foot my child’s hospital bills? After all, the infection may have come from your negligence. There’s no deprivation of rights here, and you can have all the choices and rights you want, but when your rights impinge upon mine and the health of society, then there’s a problem.

      7) censorship of the press on this topic by government officials, such as Kathleen Sebelius – HHS head, who said in 2010, “We have reached out to media outlets to try to get them to not give the views of these people [vaccine safety critics] equal weight in their reporting to what science has shown and continues to show about the safety of vaccines.”

      -Can’t argue there. The media will push whatever they can to get ratings.

      • 1, 2, 3) the difference is that no one forces me to drive or join the NFL. Yet my child is forced out of school if we should decide to delay or skip one of the vaccinations that the school deems “necessary.”

        4. This article is very condescending to those who question vaccine safety and decline certain vaccines. I don’t think I’m the only one who would interpret your tone as implying that people should vaccinate their children despite safety concerns.

        5. The data you linked to has nothing to do with the study I’m asking for (besides, I could go on and on about that data you presented, but I think that’s not the topic of this article). Why is the government averse to funding a study looking at, say, autism rates of vaccinated populations vs the unvaccinated? When government officials are asked this, they come right out and say that they think those funds are better spent elsewhere. Watch “The Greater Good” and you’ll hear it for yourself.

        6. I guess we can agree to disagree on whether the injection of toxic substances, such as thimerosal (mercury) and formaldehyde into the body is invasive. Your other point about holding the unvaccinated accountable for other people’s illnesses is off topic, but I’d be glad to go there with you, if you’d like. Perhaps in another post.

        • 1, 2, 3) the difference is that no one forces me to drive or join the NFL. Yet my child is forced out of school if we should decide to delay or skip one of the vaccinations that the school deems “necessary.”

          – If your child brings a disease into the school system that is easily treatable with a vaccine that is available, then they should not be allowed to be admitted to public school, just like someone who has Ebola is put into quarantine if they enter the U.S. Viral outbreaks that can be prevented are a great tragedy. If you choose to put the public at risk, then you should not be in the public forum in any capacity.
          – You also choose to wear a seat belt in a car, and you’re sure happy when that accident comes and you’re safer because of it. We won’t have a seatbelt when a viral pandemic starts taking lives and we let it happen.

          4. This article is very condescending to those who question vaccine safety and decline certain vaccines. I don’t think I’m the only one who would interpret your tone as implying that people should vaccinate their children despite safety concerns.

          – In no way is it meant to be condescending. Here is what I think:

          Where we get into trouble is when there are feelings involved. It’s what makes us human. Things get dicey when we start using emotionally charged social presumptions when trying to dissect a purely biological argument. That mixing of disciplines really distorts fact from fiction, and here we are with the vaccine situation. Scientific facts versus sociological emotions. We can’t hope to have anything substantive coming from an emotional conversation about biological data.

          5. The data you linked to has nothing to do with the study I’m asking for (besides, I could go on and on about that data you presented, but I think that’s not the topic of this article). Why is the government averse to funding a study looking at, say, autism rates of vaccinated populations vs the unvaccinated? When government officials are asked this, they come right out and say that they think those funds are better spent elsewhere. Watch “The Greater Good” and you’ll hear it for yourself.

          -The data I linked is from the Center for Disease Control and clearly shows that after vaccines have been introduced, those diseases have been nearly eliminated.

          Studies showing no link between vaccines and the mentioned topics:
          http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673699012398

          http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X01000974

          6. I guess we can agree to disagree on whether the injection of toxic substances, such as thimerosal (mercury) and formaldehyde into the body is invasive. Your other point about holding the unvaccinated accountable for other people’s illnesses is off topic, but I’d be glad to go there with you, if you’d like. Perhaps in another post.

          – If you scroll to 2001, you can read that this has been removed from vaccines despite no evidence of harm in 2001. Full report is available as well.

          http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal/thimerosal_timeline.html

  • People who were alive when these diseases were prevalent, before the vaccines became available, wouldn’t even consider not vaccinating their children if they had been given a choice. My grandmother told me many times what a difference vaccines had made in the world, it was a miracle she would say. Heaven forbid that you refuse to vaccinate your child and they end up dying from one of these preventable diseases- how will you feel then? Or what if a child who was vaccinated ends up getting the disease from your unvaccinated child and the vaccinated child dies- how will you feel then? Will you be able to live with the knowledge that your negligence has led to the death of a child? Please reconsider your opinion after reading the available scientific literature and evaluating the cost/ benefit ratio as you do many other things in life. The possibility of an adverse consequence of any vaccine is so remote that refusing to vaccinate is in fact negligence and should be considered criminal.

  • A few nurses get ebola in the US and the American public loudly demands a vaccine. Over 600 cases of measles in the US in 2014 and there is still stubborn resistance to vaccinate against it. Sadly, it might have to take a significant number of children to lose their lives to measles in order to see the vaccination rate increase again.

    • Hahaha. Mary, that was awesome. I hadn’t seen that yet. He is so right. Remember that time you got polio? Oh yeah, no you don’t. Great share, Mary.