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A Pediatrician's Take on Dr. Andrew Wakefield

Guest post from pediatrician and mom of two Dr. Lara Zibners, a member of our Mom Squad:

Does the name “Andrew Wakefield” mean anything to you? If you read the papers or watch TV, it probably at least rings a bell. Everywhere I go, parents want to know what I think of vaccines and if they are safe. I don’t have the space and time here to go into all the reasons why I believe vaccines not only save lives but are an essential part of raising healthy children. Suffice it to say that my own children are both fully vaccinated for their ages. However, I do want to take a few moments to let you know who this Andrew Wakefield is, why you are hearing about him, and what to think if other parents bring him up at the playground. As a pediatrician and a mother, this is a story that makes me both very sad and very angry.

Back in 1997, Andrew Wakefield made international headlines as a scientific researcher (formerly a surgery trainee doctor) who had discovered a possible link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. Dr. Wakefield’s paper was published in The Lancet, the journal of the British Medical Society, and prompted an entire body of new research into the possible link between vaccines and developmental disorders. Now let’s fast forward to 2010. Dr. Wakefield is no longer licensed as a physician in the United Kingdom after being found of guilty of grossly unethical behavior. What happened?

Good old-fashioned newspaper reporting is what happened. As Dr. Wakefield’s research made headlines, an investigation into his background and scientific conduct was made. Turns out that a lawyer, looking to create a class-action lawsuit against the MMR shot manufacturer, needed research showing the vaccine to be dangerous. Andrew Wakefield agreed to “find” such evidence in exchange for money. What’s more, Dr. Wakefield was trying to market an alternative measles vaccine that could never compete unless people stopped using the original product. There is so much more to this story that I don’t have room here for, but questions about child endangerment, falsified medical records and improper consent have also been at the center of the controversy. After reviewing the original research, which was found to have been entirely falsified, The Lancet retracted the paper, meaning it is no longer a part of our medical literature library. And in 2007, an investigation by the British General Medical Council was begun, ending just this year with a harsh judgment, declaring him to be “irresponsible and dishonest.”

Since 2001, Andrew Wakefield has been working in the United States and has been hailed a hero of the anti-vaccine movement. But to me, he’s something very different. He’s not the misunderstood victim of a well-planned conspiracy, as he claims. He’s a man who made up a scary story in exchange for money. Since the release of Dr. Wakefield’s research in 1997, immunization rates have dropped and there has been a frightening rise in the number of cases of these horrible diseases that were once very well-controlled. We pediatricians have had to work very hard to convince parents that vaccines are safe and vitally important for our children and our communities. Thank goodness we are starting to see a recovery in the number of children receiving their shots. Unfortunately it’s too late for the families who have already lost their children to vaccine-preventable disease. I think the world is owed a mighty big apology by Dr. Andrew Wakefield.

Read more about vaccines:

Everything Parents Need to Know About Vaccines
Your Most Common Vaccine Questions Answered
Vaccines: Fact vs. Fiction