Just before 7 p.m. last Thursday, as the Disneyland measles outbreak was emerging, the Los Angeles Times published an outraged editorial. It didn’t blame Disneyland, where the outbreak originated before going on to infect 70 people across six states. Nor did it blame any public agency. Instead, it took aim at a buoyant movement that won’t “get over its ignorant and self-absorbed rejection of science.”
The faction was the anti-vaccine movement — its holy text a retracted medical study, its high priest a disgraced British doctor named Andrew Wakefield. “The prospect of a new measles epidemic is disturbing,” the editorial said. “So is the knowledge that many ill-informed people accept a thoroughly discredited and retracted study in the journal Lancet that purported to associate vaccination with autism.”
Officials from Mexico to California are now scrambling to contain an outbreak that began at Disneyland but has now spilled across state lines, infecting dozens, many of whom never received the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine (MMR).
If the outbreak proves anything, it’s Wakefield’s enduring legacy. Even years after he lost his medical license, years after he was shown to have committed numerous ethical violations, and years after the retraction of a medical paper that alleged a vaccine-autism link, his message resonates. Facebook is populated by pages like “Dr. Wakefield’s Work Must Continue.” There’s the Web site called “We Support Andrew Wakefield,” which peddles the Wakefieldian doctrine. And thousands sign petitions pledging support.
Wakefield’s defenders frequently harbor a deep distrust of government. “They often suggest that vaccination is motivated by profit and is an infringement of personal liberty and choice; vaccines violate the laws and nature and are temporary or ineffective; and good hygiene is sufficient to protect against disease,” said a 2008 editorial in Nature.
And in Wakefield, who still preaches the gospel of anti-vaccination from Texas, such individuals find a true martyr — a man who has sacrificed everything to take on powerful pharmaceutical companies and the biggest villain of all: the government. Those who came to hear him speak in 2011 at Graceview Baptish Church in Tomball, Texas, left messages of encouragement, according to the New York Times: “We stand by you!” and “Thank you for the many sacrifices you have made for the cause!” Another person, suddenly aware that a reporter was in the midst, warned the writer she better be careful. “Be nice to him,” the woman said. “Or we will hurt you.
“To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one,” J.B. Handley, co-founder of a group that disputes vaccine safety, told the Times. “He is a symbol of how all of us feel.”
The career Wakefield charted before his crash was one of hard-charging research — and suspicion. Born into a family of doctors in 1957, his first target was Crohn’s disease, which he announced was the result of the measles virus. By 1995, his claim that the measles virus was also linked to ulcerative colitis, raised eyebrows. “He is not a pathologist but a surgeon,” Belgian pathologist Karel Geboes told Slate in 2010. “… His claim was too rigorous, and there was no real proof for the hypothesis.”
Soon after, as the Sunday Times later found, Wakefield connected with a United Kingdom lawyer named Richard Barr, who was working on litigation against a producer of MMR. The contact would prove very beneficial and lucrative for Wakefield. First, Barr set Wakefield up with some candidates for a study that would raise concerns about the vaccine.
“He has deeply depressing views about the effect of vaccines on the nation’s children,” Barr told a group of MMR clients and contacts in a letter reported by the British Medical Journal. “He is also anxious to arrange for tests to be carried out on any children … who are showing symptoms of possible Crohn’s disease. The following are signs to look for. If your child has suffered from all or any of these symptoms could you please contact us, and it may be appropriate to put you in touch with Dr. Wakefield.”
Wakefield had what he needed to publish a study. It was based on 12 kids. And it broadcast concern that MMR could cause a bowel disorder and autism. Nine of the immunized children were found to be autistic. “If there is a causal link between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and this syndrome, a rising incidence might be anticipated after the introduction of this vaccine in the UK in 1988,” he wrote.
The news rocketed across the globe; the media ran hot with the story. “A controversial study has suggested that autism may be a side effect of immunization against measles, mumps and rubella,” New Scientist reported weeks later.
The effect was immediate. Large swaths of people resisted immunization. According to a 2002 BBC survey, nearly 50 percent of doctors reported parents were less willing to allow medical professionals to give vaccinations to their children. (In 2012, southwest Wales was hit with an unprecedented measles outbreak that infected 1,219 people, the Wall Street Journal reported.)
Then the wheels fell off on the paper. Wakefield had several undisclosed conflicts of interest. He had applied for measles-related patents while doing the research, journalists found. And attorneys trying to prove the vaccines were unsafe had paid him $600,000. The British Medical Journal finally said he had manipulated the numbers to imply direct vaccine culpability. “Junk science,” Nature called it. On Feb. 2, 2010, more than a dozen years after it was published, Lancet retracted the paper.
In May 2010, British regulators revoked his license, finding him guilty of “serious professional misconduct.” It concluded that his work was “irresponsible and dishonest.”
Wakefield rejected the findings, calling the disciplinary action “a little bump in the road.”
Under such circumstances, most doctors would retreat into obscurity. But not Wakefield. He still believes in the mission, attracting scores of supplicants. Even today, he fiercely defends his campaign against vaccines and has found a sympathetic community in his adopted state of Texas.
Asked in 2011 by the New York Times if he still believed MMR had caused the autism in his now discredited paper, he was unequivocal. “Is that a serious question?” he asked. “Yes, I do still think MMR was causing it.”