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Andrew Wakefield and the MMR affair – the full story


Yesterday we published extracts from a discussion between James Delingpole and Sally Beck about Dr Andrew Wakefield, who was vilified by the medical establishment for raising questions about the MMR vaccine. Here Sally gives a full report on the affair.

IT IS a generation since the gastroenterologist Dr Andrew Wakefield of the Royal Free Hospital in London stuck his head above the parapet to highlight potential harms caused by the measles, mumps, and rubella triple vaccine. It was 1998 to be precise, and he faced round after round of machine-gun fire from colleagues and the establishment in his attempt to protect children from vaccine injury.

In the interim, the Chinese whisperers have twisted his story until even doctors with the scientific skills to check it believe he deliberately manipulated the now infamous case study series. This looked at whether 12 children, most with autism, also had bowel disease and investigated whether those gut problems could be in any way connected with their MMR jab. The parents of eight of the 12 children had made that connection.

Instead of taking the concerns seriously the establishment went into overdrive to protect the vaccination programme, and later Wakefield was accused of scientific fraud, of manipulating data and planning to develop his own vaccine. The Sunday Times and the British Medical Journal said he distorted the facts because he was being paid by lawyers who represented parents bringing a vaccine injury legal action against MMR manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline, Aventis Pasteur and Merck.

The Sunday Times claimed in 2004 that he had been given money by the Legal Aid Board to produce the Lancet paper, which was not true. Then in 2012, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said the Royal Free paper was an ‘elaborate fraud’ and a ‘hoax’.

But was it? It is time to separate fact from fiction. If Wakefield is a scientific fraudster, why is he not in prison and why has there been no court case to decide whether he is innocent or guilty? Why is this terrible man not behind bars, nor his colleagues for that matter?

Fiona Godlee, the editor of the BMJ, has tried twice to persuade the authorities to launch fraud proceedings against Wakefield, and failed.

As a young mother, back in 1998, I had a front row seat at this drama and what struck me most when investigating was how open Wakefield and his colleagues were, and how the opposition would often run out of road when trying to explain away regressive developmental symptoms parents thought were caused by the MMR. Eventually, Wakefield’s opposition stopped answering awkward questions.

So here is what I discovered at that time and you can decide for yourselves.

Between 1996 and 2000, Wakefield and his Royal Free team received more than 1,000 letters from desperate parents, all telling a similar story: their children had been healthy and developing normally but at around 18 months old, their development stopped, and they began to decline. Many of the children were subsequently diagnosed with autism and many parents said their child had been fine until receiving the MMR.

Why were they writing to gastroenterologists, physicians dedicated to resolving gut problems? Because alongside their autism, the children had developed intractable constipation. Their parents were being told by their GPs that this was ‘because they were autistic’. Exhausted and gaslighted, they begged the Royal Free paediatric team to investigate.

‘We would have been negligent to ignore them,’ Dr Wakefield said then. So he, John Walker-Smith, professor of paediatric gastroenterology at the Royal Free, and 11 other colleagues obtained ethical approval and set up a study.

It was a small case series, just 12 children (two were brothers), and they were very sick; their symptoms of autism had appeared in the following weeks and months post MMR vaccination. Many lost all their communication skills. Additionally, they would go for days, weeks sometimes, suffering constipation that the strongest adult laxatives could not help. Often, the children would bang their heads against walls or punch their stomachs. Wakefield and the parents recognised that this behaviour was the children attempting to alleviate their gut pain, other doctors dismissed them.

Wakefield began by scrutinising the safety studies for the measles vaccine (introduced in 1968), measles and rubella vaccine (MR) which is strangely missing from all UK records, and the MMR (1988). Two out of three versions of the MMR had been withdrawn for causing encephalitis (inflammation of the brain); redundant stocks were shipped off to Brazil.

No cause for autism had or has been identified and there was certainly no cure for these children who were often non-verbal, obsessed with rituals, objects and single toys, unable to make eye contact or show affection. They were often incontinent, walked on their toes, and flapped their hands, and most would eat nothing but wheat and dairy.

People often criticise the study for being small, but it is unethical to biopsy the bowels of healthy children. The study children received clinically indicated endoscopic examination of the bowel, and the team found unexplained changes in their intestines. It wasn’t something they recognised, not Crohn’s, not irritable bowel syndrome, not cancer: it was a new type of bowel disease.

Then came the infamous London press conference in March 1998 to announce the findings and the peer-reviewed paper titled ‘Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children’. It was hosted by the dean of the Royal Free Medical School, Professor Arie Zuckerman, and the study was published in the Lancet, our premier scientific journal.

Zuckerman was cautious and said that they had not proved that the MMR caused autism and suggested further research. Wakefield applied the precautionary principle and implored the government to suspend the MMR and go back to single jabs.

The published paper stated: ‘We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome described. Virological studies are under way that may help to resolve this issue.’

Despite this plainly stated caveat, the shit hit the fan. The term anti-vaxxer was born, headlines questioning the three-in-one jab scared the public and the paper’s authors were blamed for falling vaccination rates.

Dr Wakefield’s career was threatened in 2001 when a new Professor of Medicine, Mark Pepys, took over at the Royal Free and told Wakefield: ‘You no longer form any part of my plans for the future of this department’.

Wakefield knew he was beaten, and his resignation in December that year put paid to his dreams of a professorship in charge of a new centre for research into autism and bowel disease. His funding applications were ignored. He said he couldn’t work in his field in the UK any longer, but doors opened to him in the States.

In 2004, six years after the notorious press conference, the Sunday Times published an article by journalist Brian Deer claiming that Wakefield and his team were being paid by lawyers to get evidence supporting families’ injury claims against the three MMR manufacturers. But no payment was made for that Royal Free study.

Two months later, the doctors were asked to retract the interpretation that the MMR caused autism; although they had not made it, the media had. Behind closed doors it was explained to them that their jobs were on the line, so nine of the 12 doctors signed the retraction. Wakefield and retired consultant neurologist Peter Harvey refused while one other, John Linnell, could not be contacted, but the study was still withdrawn, not because it was inaccurate, but because the interpretation was not liked.

Then the General Medical Council (GMC) received a complaint from Deer, not from any parent, and in 2007 the hearings began. For three years the GMC probed and spent £1million doing so, then in 2010, Wakefield, Walker-Smith and another co-author, Dr Simon Murch, were called before the GMC. They gave evidence for seven months. In the end, Murch was cleared of any wrongdoing while Walker-Smith, a man with an unblemished career due to retire, and Wakefield, also unblemished, were struck off.

In 2012, Walker-Smith appealed, and his case was heard by Mr Justice John Mitting who cleared him of any wrongdoing using scathing words to describe the way the panel came to their decision, which included: ‘universal inadequacies’, ‘insufficient’, ‘laconic’, ‘fundamental errors’, ‘inadequate distorted summary of evidence’, ‘factually unsound’, ‘flawed’, ‘perverse’, and simply, ‘wrong’.

Leading barrister Michael Mansfield QC accepted Wakefield’s appeal case but the doctor could not afford the estimated £500,000 costs. His medical insurers refused to pay because of one incident. Desperate to get blood samples from a healthy control group, Wakefield had paid children £5 each at his son’s birthday party to provide blood samples. There was an argument that this was unethical although LibDem MP Dr Evan Harris told the House of Commons that ethical approval was not needed to take blood samples from children.

Still, a whole list of derogatory terms followed Wakefield around: ‘scientific fraud’, ‘callous disregard’, ‘misinformation’, ‘cancelled’ . . .

His 2016 film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe dissected a lot of the drama. Due to have its premiere at actor Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festivalit was banned, but released underground. Now Wakefield has made a new film, released today, called Infertility Movie, looking at whether the tetanus vaccination has played a role in declining fertility.

Those labels do wound him, but he has only one comment about that period, a sentiment many doctors challenging the Covid narrative will recognise.

He said: ‘I have learned what it’s like to be sidelined and ridiculed. What has happened to me has taught other scientists that it’s safer never to rock the boat. Doctors are scared to speak for fear that what happened to me may happen to them. And that can’t be good for science.’

Footnote: In 1988, 1 in 10,000 children were diagnosed with autism. Now, Andrew Wakefield says the numbers are as high as 1 in 14 in the US with official Centers for Disease Control figures at 1 in 54. Official UK figures are 1 in 100 but are more likely to be 1 in 60.

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Sally Beck
Sally Beck
Sally Beck is a freelance journalist with 30 years of experience in writing for national newspapers and magazines. She has reported on vaccines since the controversy began with the MMR in 1998.

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