From Our 2011 Archives
Investigative Reporter: MMR-Autism Study Was Faked
WebMD Talks to Journalist Brian Deer About His Expose of a Study Linking Autism and the MMR Vaccine
By Tim Locke
Reviewed by Farah Ahmed, MD
Jan. 6, 2011 - The journal BMJ has published a report that calls a 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine and autism a fraud. That study, published in the Lancet , was the work of Andrew Wakefield, MD.
WebMD talked to journalist Brian Deer, whose investigative report says that Wakefield deliberately faked his study.
Why follow up after all this time?
We had access to a 6 million-word transcript of the General Medical Council, which laid out all these children's medical [records] in extraordinary detail and in exceptional forensic circumstances. It enabled us to do a reliable case-by-case comparison of what the true position was with regards to the histories and diagnosis of these children and what Wakefield had reported in the Lancet. Given that, we had to do it.
How surprised were you by what you found?
Having spent so long on this and having come to understand the nature of Dr. Wakefield, I wasn't hugely surprised. The revelations that have tumbled out over a period of around seven years have all pointed in the same direction, so I wasn't ultimately that surprised at all. I think I was surprised that in not one case of these 12 children that were involved in this study way back in 1998, were the medical records capable of reconciliation with the research paper, which claimed to have been based on those records.
Did you have any concerns about bringing the issue back into the public eye for people to think 'there's no smoke without fire' and reawaken any parents' concerns?
I'm not concerned with second-guessing public opinion or generating policy decisions. My concern is to bring forward what we've established to be the truth and to put the record straight.
Will the analysis of the Wakefield affair mean that medical research will be held to a far higher standard?
I hope so. I personally believe that the real lesson of all this is that if he could do this, what else could be going on in all kinds of areas of science. In the U.K. we've had a GMC hearing, a doctors' regulatory hearing, which has probably [cost] about 6 million pounds. There was a libel action which Wakefield embarked upon before abandoning it, which cost doctors, I think, about another 1.2 million pounds through the Medical Protection Society. We've had enormous effort by me, by the Sunday Times, by Channel 4, the BMJ, and all this has gone into cracking just one case of 12 patients. You think if it involved that amount of effort and resources, how on earth would you ever crack a piece of research that was about something less "hot button."
There needs to be some kind of regulatory procedure whereby doctors and scientists can expect to get a knock on their door if their data is thought to be questionable.
Do you think doctors don't always want to criticize other doctors?
Some doctors have asked: "Who is this journalist to come along and rock the boat with these kinds of accusations, it's all the fault of the media, it's all journalists' fault that this scare took off." I've shown that it wasn't journalists' fault. It was a flaw within medicine itself. That flaw needs to be addressed and understood.
SOURCE: Brian Deer, journalist.