Charlatan whose bogus theory cost children’s lives is lucky with the law

ANDREW WAKEFIELD, now struck off the medical register in Britain because of his dangerous campaign falsely to link the MMR vaccine to autism, is a lucky man that being disbarred from practice is all that has happened to him. Why are there no laws in Britain to prosecute charlatans like him when their lies damage the public health and become common currency worldwide?

Many children in this country were denied the MMR vaccine because anxious parents – thinking they were doing the right thing but duped by Wakefield and the attendant campaign hyped by some irresponsible newspapers – decided not to have it administered. Children have died as a result and others have been severely disabled. It is more than a decade since Wakefield was in full flight, highlighting a possible link between the injection of the vaccine to combat the serious and sometimes deadly diseases of mumps, measles and rubella and the onset of autism and inflammatory bowel disease.

He said that in 12 cases he had studied the first “behavioural symptoms” of autism and bowel problems came only after the injection. His “solution” was to suggest to parents that the vaccines be delivered separately and at lengthy intervals.

Investigation has since established that Wakefield had manipulated the results of his findings, was in receipt of secret payments that compromised him and engaged in practices to bolster his argument that subjected children to unnecessary medical procedures.

Earlier this year a panel of medical experts in Britain, having examined all of the evidence, found Wakefield guilty of a range of charges of dishonesty and abuse. The General Medical Council panel ruled that Wakefield had “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant”, acted against the interests of his patients and acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in his research.

The Lancet, the medical journal which first published the research and which as a reputable publication is used as source material by the general media, has apologised for ever having published Wakefield’s claims. Ten of the 13 researchers on Wakefield’s original team have also apologised.

Yet you will still find people who say Wakefield is right and who demand equal time on air when there is broadcast discussion of this issue. They believe their hunches are as valid as scientific proof.

I have heard conspiracy theorists argue that the MMR vaccine is a moneymaking racket for the drug companies who have bought off doctors. The arguments have been made that introducing controlled amounts of the viruses to the body is unnatural and is bound to cause problems for many. Of course there are medicines and vaccines that don’t work and occasionally bring about adverse reactions. But that is why rigorous testing is applied before their release and use.

Vaccination against a range of diseases and illnesses was one of the great human and scientific advances of the 20th century and has contributed dramatically to the tumbling of the infant mortality rates.

The increase in the cases of autism can be attributed largely to better understanding and definition of the condition. It was unfair, at the very least, to parents of children with the condition to make them feel responsible for “giving” their kids autism by vaccinating them when there was no evidence to support that. It was also unfair on kids who were vaccinated that the herd protection that is required was damaged by the fact that large numbers of parents were too scared to do the right thing.

nThe Moriarty Tribunal has been taking an awful lot of flak recently – and not just from those who are the subject of its investigations into former minister Michael Lowry’s role in awarding a mobile phone licence back in 1995.

It has taken too long, is too expensive and now, crucially, has been shown apparently to have gotten things wrong. Politicians have joined with the participants in the long-running show to make these arguments and they seem to have good grounds. It is now more than nine years since this phase of the investigation into Lowry began. It has cost nearly €50m in legal fees (with more to come if those investigated are not required to pay their own legal bills) and now it has withdrawn a number of the provisional findings that it sent to involved parties in advance of publication of the final report.

It seems hard to argue against the proposition that it has taken too long. However, there are two good reasons for explaining, if not excusing, this: legal challenges have delayed its work at times, although not so much as to explain a nine-year trawl; the tribunal is under enormous pressure to get things right so as to ensure unreasonable or unfair damage is not done to the reputations of those who are being investigated.

The cost is linked to the time the investigation has taken and the fees charged by lawyers to the tribunal – paid for by the state – rightly have risked the ire of the public. They are massively expensive. But how much will those called by the tribunal to account for their actions pay per hour to their own lawyers? I’ll bet many of those lawyers will be paid even more. Those under investigation are paying the market rate: should the state have hired cheaper, and then potentially inferior, lawyers to carry out the investigation?

The main issue though is the fairness and accuracy of the tribunal’s findings. What seems to have been missed is the scrupulous fairness with which Justice Moriarty has treated most of his witnesses when it comes to making findings.

PROOF that he has acted honourably as chairman of a fact-finding tribunal comes from his action in making those who were to be subject of adverse comment aware of his findings before publishing any of them. This has given them the opportunity to rebut and refute. That doesn’t happen in a court case after the evidence is heard.

As a result it seems now that certain preliminary findings have been withdrawn because the subjects have made arguments that the judge accepts.

Surely that is a strength rather than a weakness of the process, a vindication of Moriarty rather than a criticism? It demonstrates that Moriarty is not determined to be judge, jury and executioner. He is trying to establish facts, in as far as is possible, and that he draws reasonable conclusion based on them. He has shown a willingness to change his mind. He seems to be trying to be fair to those he intends criticising, to be sure he is as right as he can be, based on a commonsense as well as legal interpretation of the facts.

This suggests that what’s happening could strengthen rather than weaken the eventual report. But the idea that he now breaks the final report into two, as Moriarty has suggested in a letter to the clerk of the Dáil and revealed this week, seems more than a bit odd. If he does this, by doing one report on the money trail to Lowry and a second subsequent report on the issuing of the licence, he runs the risk of colouring public opinion negatively to what’s in the second report, almost irrespective of content, especially if he eventually makes a finding that nothing corrupt took place. That hardly seems fair to all concerned.

Tonight marks the end of the first season of the Late Late Show with Ryan Tubridy as host. He is a guest on the Last Word with Matt Cooper this evening on 100-102 Today FM

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