In the Wake of Wakefield
What do you think?
Remember the autism-related MMR vaccine controversy? Andrew Wakefield, an esteemed medical practitioner, published a paper in 1998 linking the administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to Autism and gastrointestinal problems, which was later retracted due to allegations of misconduct.
Wakefield never claimed to have proved that the MMR vaccine caused autism, though his concerns, expressed vocally at a press conference, ricocheted around the world.
The British Medical Journal published an investigation in 2010, concluding that Wakefield misrepresented or altered the medical histories of all 12 of the patients whose cases were included in the 1998 study.
The controversy that ensued led to a sharp drop in the number of children getting the MMR vaccine, falling as low as 80% by 2004.
Were it not for Brian Deer, a British journalist whom Wakefield calls a “hit man”, he might have remained a scientist who had committed a small wrongdoing, and was sorry for it. However, Deer began investigating Wakefield in 2004, and in 2011, won the Specialist Journalist of the Year award from England’s Society of Editors for his work that has shed a far-more condemning light on Wakefield.
Susan Dominus, a staff writer for the New York Times, includes a befitting quote in her 2011 piece on the story:
Its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself.
Wakefield remains active in the field of autism research, speaking to small crowds on the subject in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He is persuasive when he talks -- almost manipulative, using scientific jargon when speaking to parents of autistic children.
Wakefield was quoted recently, saying, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me. It matters what happens to the children.”
News on the recent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut has apparently created a new autism-related controversy, suggesting that people with autism are more likely to commit a violent act, although I couldn’t find an article directly stating as much -- mostly blog posts from parents of autistic children pleading with the media not to make this about autism.
Autism is a developmental disorder, not a mental illness. My sister has autism spectrum disorder; she’s 20, but thinks like a 9 year-old in many areas.
In the wake of Wakefield, media coverage of both the Wakefield case and the Newtown shooting reveal that our society is still looking for a cause and effect relationship in autism spectrum disorder.
Whether or not science has found one is a hot topic of debate. The bottom line, though, is that parents just want their autistic children to be understood by the world. Isn’t that what all of us want?