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article imageBritish reporter Brian Deer talks vaccine-autism link controversy Special

By Andrew Moran     Feb 15, 2011 in Health
Toronto - British investigative journalist Brian Deer spent seven years investigating Dr. Andrew Wakefield's claims of a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Other topics included science reports, journalism ethics and others.
In 1996, former British medical surgeon and researcher Andrew Wakefield focused on possible connections between the MMR vaccine and autism. This led to outcry from the general public and parents who have autistic children. In the end, however, it was concluded that the research, published in the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet, was fraudulent.
Investigate journalist for the Sunday Times of London, Brian Deer, spoke on Tuesday evening at the Innis Town Hall with a panel of experts in downtown Toronto. The event was presented by the Canadian Journalism Foundation.
Deer was joined by executive director of Science Media Centre of Canada, Penny Parker, deputy editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, and chair of the Research Ethics Board at Women’s College Hospital, Dr. Miriam Shuchman. The event was moderated by co-host and producer of Discovery's “Daily Planet,” Jay Ingram.
Deer, who was part of a Channel 4 series exposing Wakefield, delivered a slideshow highlighting his findings, how Wakefield and his collaborators were able to actually publish such information in a well-respected medical journal and Wakefield’s defense.
Andrew Wakefield and the data
Who is Dr. Andrew Wakefield? Wakefield came from a family of medical professionals; his father was a neurologist and his mother was a general practitioner. He studied medicine in England before travelling to Canada to work and study at the University of Toronto.
Deer explained that Wakefield was hired by a lawyer to make a case against MMR developers. By doing so, Wakefield was paid approximately $330 per hour and was given eight times his annual salary. His sole purpose was to find the link between MMR and injury.
Dr. Matthew Stanbrook (l) and Daily Planet Co-Host/Producer Jay Ingram.
Dr. Matthew Stanbrook (l) and Daily Planet Co-Host/Producer Jay Ingram.
Wakefield focused his research on two things: timeline and a new syndrome. Deer notes that Wakefield had to discover a timeline between MMR and the first behavioural problems. It was said that MMR was to be blamed for eight of 12 cases, including 9 having “regressive autism” and 11 having “bowel disease.”
Furthermore, Deer pointed out in his slideshow that Wakefield and his accomplices had to create fake links, such as drawing families from anti-MMR campaign organizations. Also, none of the children were from London. Two children came from the same doctor, two children came from 280 miles away and one came from 5,000 miles away.
Earlier versions of the report have the number of cases at 11 out of 12, but Deer says it would have been “too good to be true” and that 8 out of 12 cases seemed much more plausible and believable than having 11.
“Continued association becomes frightening evidence,” noted Deer.
Deer points out another “faking-link” by Wakefield “making normal abnormal,” which means labelling common occurrences that happen in young age as something dire. For example, child no. 1 had pale skin, a fever and delirium, child no. 2 had diarrhea and vomiting, child no. 6 suffered from a fever, a cold and a rash and child no. 11 had viral chest infections.
Where is Wakefield now?
Since the case made international headlines, Wakefield claims he has lost everything in his life. He also says that he is the victim of a grand conspiracy by the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical industry and governments around the world.
“I want to make one thing crystal clear for the record – my research and the serious medical problems found in those children were not a hoax and there was no fraud whatsoever. Nor did I seek to profit from our findings,” said Wakefield in a statement.
“Despite media reports to the contrary, the results of my research have been duplicated in five other countries. I continue to fully support more independent research to determine if environmental triggers, including vaccines, are causing autism and other developmental problems. Since the Lancet paper, I have lost my job, my career and my country. To claim that my motivation was profit is patently untrue. I will not be deterred – this issue is far too important.”
Wakefield published a book last year titled “Callous Disregard.” In an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Wakefield urged viewers to read his book to find out more about why he is being “unfairly targeted.” Cooper responded, “But, sir, if you're lying, then your book is also a lie. If your study is a lie, your book is a lie.”
Wakefield has denied the assertions made by the public. He states that he listened to the parents and there was no conflict of interest. Deer simply puts it: “Version of dark forces.”
The state of media, journalism and science
After Wakefield’s presentation, the panelists discussed the present state of science and the media. Stanbrook warned that journalists should be more cautious about the language inserted into an article’s headline or body. “There should be little less emotion and a little more fact.”
Stanbrook did note, though, that journals, such as The Lancet, do not have the power to punish those who conduct inaccurate and/or fraudulent research studies. Journal editors must follow the proper procedures in order to publish accurate data.
Furthermore, Stanbrook interjected that a lot of Wakefield’s work was promoted and pushed by non-scientific authorities, including celebrity chefs, a rock critic, political public figures and many others.
In light of this, Park, a former producer of CBC Radio's “Quirks and Quarks,” said that members of the scientific community should be more open and speak with journalists regarding certain science information that is making the rounds. This was agreed upon by panelists.
For more information and in-depth explanation of the vaccine-autism controversy, click here.
More about Brian Deer, Autism vaccine link, Canadian journalism foundation, Andrew wakefield
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