Andrew Wakefield has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation, blamed directly and indirectly, depending on the accuser, for irresponsibly starting a panic with tragic repercussions: vaccination rates so low that childhood diseases once all but eradicated here — whooping cough and measles, among them — have re-emerged, endangering young lives.None of Wakefields claims could stand up to scrutiny and hundreds of studies carried out since Wakefield's original claims found no link between autism and vaccinations. None could repeat his results, and closer scrutiny of the original study found widespread fraud and misleading information to the point that the Lancet retracted the story - albeit far too late for the damage to have been undone.
And yet here he was in Texas, post-career-apocalypse, calmly discussing his work, and a crowd of around 250 people showed up to listen. As people walked into the lobby of the church in Tomball, they passed by a whiteboard with a message that asked attendees to express their thoughts to Wakefield. Many complied with lavish thanks: “We stand by you!” and “Thank you for the many sacrifices you have made for the cause!” When he finally took the podium, the audience members, mostly parents of autistic children, stood and applauded wildly.
In his presentation, Wakefield sounded impatient but righteous. He used enough scientific terms — “ataxic,” “histopathological review” and “vaccine excipients” — that those parents who did not feel cowed might have been flattered by his assumption of their scientific fluency. He also tried to defend himself against a few of the charges laid out in The British Medical Journal — offering defenses that did not hold up before the journal’s panel of editors but were perhaps enough to assure an audience of his fans that he did, in fact, have defenses. Some part of Wakefield’s cult status is surely because of his personal charisma, and he spoke with great rhetorical flair. He took off his glasses and put them back on like a gifted actor maximizing a prop. “What happens to me doesn’t matter,” he said at one point. “What happens to these children does matter.”
After the talk, a line of visitors snaked down the length of the lobby, his followers waiting to have Wakefield sign a book he wrote about his experience and convictions, “Callous Disregard.” “All right, love?” he said, handing the book back to one mother. “Of course,” he said when asked for a photo. A pregnant woman in the lobby told me she was there trying to educate herself. Another woman, with tears in her eyes, blamed herself for not working harder to obtain a separate measles vaccine for her possibly autistic child.
Michelle Guppy, the coordinator of the Houston Autism Disability Network and the organizer of the Tomball event, said she believed her own autistic son benefited greatly from one aspect of Wakefield’s work: his conviction that untreated gastrointestinal problems could be behind some of autism’s symptoms. It was Guppy, it turned out, who thought to hire the armed guards “to make the statement,” she said, “that this is neutral ground, and it’s going to be civil.” Guppy, a mother of two who was elegantly dressed for the occasion, made no pretense of neutrality herself. She narrowed her eyes when she learned that a writer from The New York Times was there to write about Wakefield.
Vaccination rates are now much lower than they were before Wakefield's study was published - and that has a direct effect on medical costs, hospitalizations, deaths, and severe injury resulting from infection with easily preventable communicable diseases like measles, mumps, or rubella.
Regardless of the science, Wakefield still holds to the belief that the MMR vaccine causes autism - and parents of kids who are of an age who should be getting vaccinations are still listening to the likes of Wakefield and he's receiving support from Generation Rescue, which further peddles the anti-vaccination tripe despite no evidence supporting any link between vaccination and autism.
Indeed, one of the reasons that Wakefield's study was retracted was because a closer look at the patients in his study found that several of the severely limited sample size were already displaying developmental disabilities well before they were vaccinated with the MMR - suggesting that something else was at work - not vaccinations. Many studies note that there are likely genetic and environmental factors at work, but vaccinations are not one of them.