The Lie That Started It All

The Lie That Started It All

If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

As stated in chapter 2, anti-vaccine sentiment has been alive and well since the advent of immunizations and immunization programs. However, our modern-day movement is built primarily upon the work of a single man, Andrew Wakefield. With the aid of rapid dissemination of faulty information via the Internet and social media platforms, Wakefield has transformed a once small and localized group into an increasingly organized and vocal fringe with worldwide reach. Some see him as a hero, a martyr of sorts, sacrificing his professional practice and reputation for the good of the poor unsuspecting families who are being duped by pharmaceutical companies, government, and the medical profession. He would have people believe that these institutions are in cahoots to bilk everyday citizens out of their money and their health. It is hard to comprehend how anyone could imagine this to be true. It sounds utterly paranoid and delusional. Yet, every day, people make ill-informed vaccine decisions based upon his lies that affect their health, the health of their loved ones, and the health of their communities. Moreover, even though his assertions have been proven wrong time and again, and his “research” shown to be factually inaccurate and unethically conducted, people are still buying what he’s selling. It is remarkable that we, as a society, are not more incensed at the chaos that Wakefield has created in the medical and public health sector. Indeed, we should be outraged at the illnesses he has caused our children to suffer and the deaths that are on his hands as a result of the self-serving seed of doubt he planted with the publication of his study suggesting a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of an intestinal illness and autism.

This chapter will dig deeper into Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet article. It will examine Wakefield’s methods, his misrepresentation of facts, his unethical scientific practices, and his ultimate aims to profit financially from his claims. As medical practitioners, most of us are aware that his research was debunked and that he was stripped of his medical license for falsifying data, but I suspect we are not as familiar with the incredible depths and degrees of his deception. Using the comprehensive investigative journalism of award-winning reporter Brian Deer on behalf of London’s The Sunday Times, and the insightful and scientifically grounded evaluation of Wakefield’s research
by retired researcher Joel A. Harrison, PhD, MPH, as a foundation, this chapter will hopefully revive our sense of outrage at the costly and dangerous hoax that Wakefield perpetrated upon an unsuspecting public.


Andrew Jeremy Wakefield was born in 1957 in Eton, Berkshire, England. He graduated medical school in 1981 at what is now the Imperial College School of Medicine. Before being discredited and having his name stricken from the UK medical register for unethical behavior, misconduct, and fraud, he was a gastroenterologist and researcher at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine. In 1998, Wakefield, along with 12 other coauthors on the study, published an article in Lancet titled “Ileal-Lymphoid-Nodular Hyperplasia, Non-specific Colitis, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder in Children.” The study suggested a link between the combined MMR vaccine and a syndrome that the researchers termed “autistic enterocolitis,” a combination of inflammatory bowel disease and regressive autism. In an unusual move for a researcher, Wakefield didn’t just submit his paper for publication in an academic medical journal, where it may have raised questions and concerns in the academic sphere and would have encouraged further study, as is common in the process of scientific research. Instead, he launched a public relations campaign with a video news release and press conference, calling for a boycott of the combined MMR vaccine in favor of individual MMR vaccines spaced apart by a year, thus spreading news of his unconfirmed data to the world and giving us a sense of the media spectacle that Wakefield seems to thrive in.

As concerns began surfacing about the truthfulness of his data, he refused requests to attempt validation of his Lancet paper with a controlled study. After reportedly being asked to leave his post at the Royal Free Hospital, he moved to the United States in 2001 with his family where he lives to this day. He established and served as executive director of the Thoughtful House Center for Children, an organization that “studies” autism, continuing to put forth his theory of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. He resigned from Thoughtful House in 2010 when, after a record-setting 2 1/2 years of deliberation, the British General Medical Council Fitness to Practice Panel stripped him of his medical license for “dishonest and irresponsible” research practices. Despite all of this, he continues to be held up by anti-vaccine activists, such as J. B. Handley of the group Generation Rescue, as “Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one.”1

His recent activities include speaking out against legislation that would make it more difficult to seek exemption from vaccination, holding counsel with President Trump—a meeting that resulted in Trump’s proposal to create a committee to look into the safety of vaccines (not a bad idea, but these committees already exist and the proposal only served to alarm and further confuse the populace), and producing a film shot in documentary style titled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Of the film, the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan gave the following review: “It’s hard to know which of the film’s many flaws to cite first, so here’s one thing it does fairly well: scare the bejesus out of you. That’s assuming you have read nothing about the subject of vaccines and autism, and are of a generally lax and incurious mind when it comes to the rigors of scientific inquiry.”2 (See Appendix E: Journal Articles Addressing Specific Vaccine Concerns for a list of reliable research papers on vaccines.)


Wakefield’s Lancet study was published on February 28, 1998. It described 12 children with a “history of a pervasive developmental disorder with loss of acquired skills and intestinal symptoms” and asserted that the “onset of behavioral symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children.”3 The article also reported that the onset of these behavioral and intestinal symptoms generally began within 14 days after administration of the MMR immunization. Following release of the article, the United Kingdom saw a significant drop in vaccination rates below those required to maintain herd immunity, from 92% in 1996-1997 to 80% in 2003-2004, with a subsequent increase in outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.4 (Box 8.1) Although the study itself did not claim to prove an association, the inclusion of the parents’ observations certainly suggested one, and the public bought into the claim with disastrous consequences in communities across the world.

In the years of confusion and fear that followed, an investigative journalist named Brian Deer was engaged by The Sunday Times to look into the veracity of Wakefield’s claims. In 2004, Deer wrote his first in a series of articles for the Times, highlighting numerous incidences of dishonesty and unethical practices associated with the article, triggering 10 of Wakefield’s 12 coauthors to retract their part of the study. In 2010, following the longest professional misconduct hearings by the UK General Medical Council ever held, Wakefield was found guilty of “serious professional misconduct”6 and his name was stricken from the medical register. Shortly thereafter, the Lancet retracted his paper (Figure 8.1).

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Mar 16, 2020 | Posted by in GENERAL & FAMILY MEDICINE | Comments Off on The Lie That Started It All

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