TERRY PRONE: Measles and autism - Applying such casual standards to a major medical story is astonishing

It’s like a mad extension of that “mistakes” and “bad choices” scenario.

That’s the one where a guy convicted of 400 cases of rape, murder, and arson is interviewed when he has finally told the cops the whole blood-soaked story and, by way of commentary, nods sagely and says “I’ve made mistakes”. To which the answer is: “No, sunshine, you made mistake, singular. You got caught. Apart from that, everything you did was pre-meditated fully cognisant evil.” Or he confesses to having made bad choices. That one brings steam out my ears. Bad choices? Like life was a dodgy buffet and he’d had the bad luck to pick the sushi that was past its best?

What the English Independent newspaper did in response to the outbreak of measles in Wales that has killed one man and done a great deal of permanent damage to others who became infected was to toddle along to Andrew Wakefield, hero of an earlier time, and ask him what he thought about the outbreak.

Now, just in case you’ve got a touch of news-oversupply-amnesia, and can’t quite put a face on Mr Wakefield, let me remind you that he was once Dr Wakefield. Wakefield was the handsome, media-friendly doctor who was struck off several years ago. Yep. That bloke. The one whose charisma went viral, transmitted by people such as (then MEP) Kathy Synnott, who totally bought in to his wizard wheeze that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The problem about Wakefield, his charisma, and particularly his MMR theory, was that the latter was based on flawed research. Not marginally flawed research. Research flawed by him being heavily conflicted as to his interests. His interest being to deliver unto those who had paid him the scientific justification for their money in the form of results they liked and could use. The research was highly popular and so ropey that two of the other contributors to this saga of rotten research were also struck off. (Although one of them was let back after an appeal as less culpable than the others.)

The fact is Wakefield’s rotten research and straight-up crazy theories provided false hope to a generation of parents of children with autism, provided fodder for parents who were also campaigners on the topic (including Synnott), distracted from decent research into the condition, and grievously reduced the numbers of parents willing to have their children vaccinated, thereby endangering not only their children but everybody else’s children — plus, in the case of measles, adults, too, as we’ve seen.

So, when the Independent (British, let me repeat, lest anybody in Talbot St, Dublin get their editorial underwear in a twist) got worried about the Welsh outbreak, did they race to leading public health officials or to microbiologists to see if the strain that killed the Welshman had trailing neon antennae or suchlike to make it extra lethal? Nope. They went to Wakefield and asked him what he thought. What he thought was the greatest load of self-serving, head-banging bilge, because in the 15 years since he was stopped putting ‘Dr’ in front of his name, he has not seen the light and become a serious thinker worth listening to on this topic. Au contraire.

“The discredited doctor who triggered the MMR scare 15 years ago has pinned the blame for the outbreak of measles in south Wales on the government,” the paper’s front page gasped.

That’s like Charles Manson pinning the blame for the Boston Marathon bombing on hamster-breeders in the Isle of Man. It’s a factually insupportable statement from the least qualified person in the world.

Going to Wakefield for a response to the measles epidemic was a new low in notoriety outflanking merit. Notoriety outflanks merit a lot, these days, sometimes with the connivance of the meritorious — witness the underwear-free photo op provided, these last couple of days by that fine actor Gwyneth Paltrow. Paltrow in tights inside a dress slit to the waist on either side is just doing what working actors do: Constantly reminding people of their fame/looks/flakiness.

However, to apply the same casual standards to a major medical story is astonishing. Wakefield, you must remember, is not even a working doctor and has not been one for more than a decade. Nor is he a genius stopped by illness or mishap from continuing to practice. His only claim to fame is crookery and pandering to those seeking a singular and specific explanation for autism. He has contributed nothing to healthcare other than delusion and damage. He’s out of medicine for a decade and a half. That’s a very long time in science. He cannot have anything to say that’s worth listening to.

When the newspaper went to him, he didn’t hang his head in shame and take even partial blame for the fall in vaccinations. Instead, he said the price of the vaccine was too high. The price of the vaccine, within the National Health Service, was what, according to Wakefield, had led to the diminution in vaccinations. Now, anybody who follows controversies knows that the single most important contribution to the fall-off in vaccine use was Wakefield himself and his crazy theory about autism.

The newspaper took down his daft and dangerous ramblings and printed them. Front page, above the fold, they printed them. Under a big headline describing him as a doctor, which he SO isn’t. They sandwiched his haverings in between statements that the Lancet had retracted the paper he had originally submitted to them and that he’d been found to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” while showing “callous disregard for children’s suffering” — his methods included spinal taps on his subjects — and betraying the trust of patients. Including this bad stuff about him perhaps made the newspaper feel better about printing his vapourings: “Well, of course, readers will be able to see that they can’t trust him even if he says Monday follows Sunday — we pull the rug out from under him directly after each quotation from him.” True. It is nonetheless passing strange, in the history of journalism, to deliberately select a discredited crook who is neither medically qualified nor resident in Britain to comment on a public health issue. Remember, when the story appeared on the front page of the paper, a million Welsh people were lining up at GPs’ offices, hospitals and pharmacies to get the MMR jab before they got measles — it’s that bad a situation.

Crooks and knaves increasingly have a half-life — sometimes a very profitable half-life — due to failure to distinguish between the famous and the notorious.

That’s precisely what’s happened to Wakefield. He isn’t living in a council flat in Bermingham and surviving on the dole. Wakefield’s present situation does not call for a sympathy vote.

This guy is now in charge of an outfit in Texas called Medical Interventions for Autism and involved in a reality TV show on autism out there. Doing nicely, he is, in areas where he will do even more nicely thanks to the publicity a major English newspaper has given him, free gratis and for nowt.

It’s enough to bring you out in spots.


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