Through some unfortunate and seemingly diabolical sequence of events, Andrew Wakefield has found his way back into the spotlight, this time in the form of a documentary to be screened at the Tribeca film festival. The film, Vaxxed: From Coverup to Catastrophe, brings back the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism. And airing this film at an international festival gives its message an undeserved air of credibility.
But Wakefield is not a shunned hero. He’s a thoroughly discredited medical fraud. His story began with a study published in The Lancet in 1998 “linking” the MMR vaccine to developmental regression. But Wakefield’s study had some significant flaws–like the fact that he altered the data for his 12 subjects, that he failed to disclose significant conflicts of interest (like owning the patent to a competing vaccine), and that the children in the study were cherry-picked by Wakefield’s lawyer. This article was later retracted by The Lancet and blasted by the British Medical Journal. Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was revoked–not because of a vast conspiracy theory, but because he broke pretty much every rule of academic medicine.
Over the past 18 years, pediatricians have spent countless hours of time fighting this myth–with scientific research, in the media, and with parents in the exam room. In reality, the vast majority of parents and doctors are on the same side; we want healthy kids. But at times, it certainly feels like a war.
The time we’ve spent on this topic takes away from addressing much larger threats–like obesity, mental health, or accidental injuries and deaths. If we didn’t have to spend so much time discussing vaccine safety, we’d use it to discuss water safety. Or firearms in the home. Or locking up cleaning supplies. Or any of thousands of other topics that actually threaten a child’s health.
But there are direct consequences as well. If people like Wakefield hadn’t scared parents into avoiding vaccines, we wouldn’t have lost as many children to pneumococcal meningitis. Or meningococcal sepsis. We wouldn’t be dealing with measles outbreaks. Fewer people would die from cervical cancer or other HPV-related diseases. Kids wouldn’t get diphtheria.
The science is clear: vaccines do not cause autism. And they prevent some very dangerous diseases. There was no “coverup.” And the only “catastrophe” is that, in the face of an enormous mountain of evidence disproving his theory, Wakefield has been given yet another stage.
Update: Vaxxed got axxed. Just read that Tribeca has decided to pull the film from their lineup. It was the right move. Physicians, scientists, and other healthcare workers can make a difference by engaging the public and addressing issues like this head-on. And that difference can save lives. #gotAxxed