Autism Chapter 1: Research Fraud, the Nurse, and Vaccines

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In the seven years that I taught various global health courses before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was at least one nurse in class unafraid to share their anti-vaccine (anti-vax) sentiments. It was always the same scenario: by the time I posted Wakefield’s 1998 fraudulent paper linking cases of autism in children to the most common childhood vaccines, not to mention other high-level papers that explained the entire spectacle, they changed their minds one by one. The evidence-based siren call of public health trained us all to listen to the famous Lancet journal. Of course, they did not see (or even hear about) The Lancet retraction by of the infamous paper and disgraced authors in 2004. I suppose the public mostly were also not aware of The Lancet coming to sense, or worse knew about it and ignored it. Methodologically, an impossibly small sample size (12 children) was correlated with an onset of symptoms several years later that may have seemed connected to the untrained individual. Only recently has it been known that the appearance of autism takes several years in children after birth.

But as we were being dominated by the Delta Variants of SARS-COV-2, something changed: it was no longer the science (or lack of good science) that drove an increasing number of student’s errant public health opinions, it was now stubborn assertions of personal liberty and perceived rights that were central to their decision making, mixed with conspiracy-like, anti-government considerations. And a small percentage of the current anti-vaxxers refuse the rule of logic-driven argument and hold baseless positions. Much like some of my own friends and family — I now refuse this argument.

What happened? Wakefield’s 1998 fraudulent research publication was published three years before 9/11, in the same year that Google was founded. I was just getting started on my conversion from library visits to instant data availability on my PC. Somewhere between 1998 and the 2004 Lancet retraction, I did not notice how rapidly conspiracy theory and misinformation was expanding on the Internet. Though mistrust towards vaccines has been a constant throughout most of the history of medicine, it is without doubt Wakefield who has most effectively motivated the current anti-vax trends, even as people have ever increasing access to available scientific and medical public health evidence.

But do not take it from me. Here is Wakefield’s infamous Lancet publication for your records: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140673697110960/fulltext . And here is The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud — PMC (nih.gov) . And here is Relationship Between MMR Vaccine and Autism — Kristin C Klein, Emily B Diehl, 2004 (sagepub.com) . And this article is interesting also: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/18/how-disgraced-anti-vaxxer-andrew-wakefield-was-embraced-by-trumps-america .

And there you have it — the complete story on how fraudulent research convinced the world to distrust the vaccines. For some, all vaccines.

THE END? Stay Posted for my next installment on Autism.

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Christopher Eddy M.P.H., REHS, CP-FS 🗻

Global Public Health; Scientific/Medical Writer; Teacher/Instructor: Former SME ASPR/FEMA/Georgetown University; Author; Wellness; Marvel; Content is all mine