Saturday, January 7, 2012

Short Sharp Science

Doctor linking MMR vaccine and autism sues critics

Andy Coghlan, reporter
rexfeatures_1099065b.jpg(Image: Paul Grover/Rex Features)

Andrew Wakefield, the doctor whose 1998 study proposed a long-discredited link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is to sue for damages following accusations made a year ago that his research was fraudulent.
Wakefield's MMR-autism claims were seriously undermined in 2010 when The Lancet retracted his original study. In the same year, he was banned from practising as a doctor by the UK General Medical Council (GMC) for "fundamental failings in his duty as a doctor" that emerged from a three-year investigation into the MMR vaccine affair, the longest in the GMC's history.
In its verdict, the GMC's investigating panel identified "transgressions in many aspects of Dr Wakefield's research [and] findings of dishonesty in regard to his writing of a scientific paper that had major implications for public health". It also accused him of dishonestly failing to declare to The Lancet that he had a patent on a competing vaccine, called Transfer Factor.
A year ago, the British Medical Journal weighed in with another damning claim: that the original research was fraudulent and that Wakefield manipulated the data and diagnoses of the 12 children in his study to fix the case against the MMR vaccine.
Now, it appears Wakefield is fighting back. In a suit launched on 5 January in Texas, he is suing the British investigative journalist Brian Deer for articles he wrote in the BMJ in January last year, and the journal's editor Fiona Godlee for editorials she wrote supporting Deer's investigations. Wakefield is also suing the journal itself and its publishers.
The suit reveals that Wakefield's action is not an attempt to resurrect his original claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Rather, his main objective is to defend his personal integrity and professional reputation by challenging allegedly false and malicious claims by Deer that he deliberately manipulated and falsified data and diagnoses.
Deer claimed in his analysis, for example, that three of nine children reported with regressive autism didn't actually have autism. The suit says this is false and that "based on the clear underlying evidence, these subjects did suffer from autism".
Wakefield's suit also challenges Deer's assertions that in some of the children, symptoms of autism began before they had their MMR jabs. Deer says that in child 11, for example, symptoms appeared two months earlier than reported in The Lancet and before the jab, but Wakefield insists that according to the father of the child, symptoms did not arise until after the vaccination.
"It is Deer, Godlee and BMJ who have provided misleading information regarding these 12 children's histories with the malicious purpose of injuring Dr Wakefield by falsely making it appear that [he] altered, manipulated or misrepresented data for the 12 cases," says the suit. "In fact, all of the facts and findings in the Lancet paper are supported by the documents for these 12 patients."
Likewise, Wakefield challenges supporting editorials by BMJ editor Fiona Godlee claiming that the paper reporting the findings in The Lancet was in fact "an elaborate fraud", and a concocted "MMR scare".
"The BMJ is supposed to be a respected medical journal," says the suit. "Instead, Godlee, Deer and others used the BMJ to launch an unprecedented personal attack on a doctor."
The suit also cites allegedly defamatory statements by Deer in media interviews broadcast in the US, in which the journalist accused Wakefield of being "a determined cheat", embarking on a "campaign of lies" and of trying to "work out a nice little the expense of autistic children".

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