Stripped today of his license to practice medicine, Dr. Andrew Wakefield -- whose 1998 study on the Measles-Mumps-Rubella vaccine and autism led millions of parents to stop vaccinating their children -- insists that he will continue with his research into vaccines and autism.
"My concern is for vaccine safety, for a safety-first vaccine policy," Dr. Wakefield told me in an interview today. "I have every intention of continuing to serve this population of children for as long as I can."
Earlier today, The British government announced that it had found Wakefield guilty of "serious professional misconduct" in the way that he and his colleagues carried out their research; they are not investigating the science behind it. The ruling affects Wakefield's ability to practice medicine in the United Kingdom but not in other countries. He is currently not licensed to practice in the U.S., though he does do clinical research here and was on the board of The Thoughtful House for Children, an autism center in Austin, Texas, until he resigned in February 2010.
According to the Associated Press, vaccination rates in the UK have never recovered after Wakefield's 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine to autism in children -- in spite of the fact that the study involved just 12 children, clearly stated that no causal connection between the two had been proven (though it did say that the possibility had been raised), and was officially retracted in February by the Lancet, the medical journal in which it was originally published. Some people have extrapolated the findings to include all vaccinations, not just the MMR.
Wakefield, who defends himself in his new book out this week (Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines -- The Truth Behind a Tragedy) says that he feels there could be a benefit to reducing the number of vaccinations children receive overall. "I think there are certain vaccinations that are not justified," he says, pointing to last-year's outbreak of mumps in New York and New Jersey, in which most patients had been properly immunized, and questioning the effectiveness of the vaccine. The fact that immunity waned "has created a public health crisis." He also takes issue with the chicken pox vaccine, saying that it was
originally marketed as a way to help mothers avoid having to take time
off from work to tend to sick children.
"I do believe that there is a very good case for slowing down, for asking very very important questions about what should and shouldn't be in the [vaccination schedule]," he says.
No one says that vaccines are 100 percent safe -- the side effects are well documented by the CDC -- but while the medical community rejects the idea of vaccine-autism link in general, there is scientific evidence that vaccines can act as a trigger for children with certain medical issues, like mitochondrial disease. When people conduct population-based studies, Wakefield said, they are not usually talking about these small groups of children who may be genetically predisposed to an adverse reaction.
"I think that the MMR is just part of the equation," he said. The childhood vaccines preceding the first MMR dose used to contain Thimerosal, which Wakefield described as "exquisitely poisonous in small doses."
"One could reasonably argue that the synergistic action of a poison followed by a virus could lead to a toxic overload," he said. "The priority must be on finding a comprehensive way to look at interactions. Is there a cumulative effect? Are we damaging children's immune systems by giving them too many vaccinations?"
Though several large-scale studies have refuted the MMR-autism link, there are more than 5,500 claims filed by families seeking compensation for children believed to have been hurt by the MMR vaccine, the Associated Press reported, and Wakefield points to certain "vaccine court" rulings as proof that a link exists. "The American government has conceded in vaccine court that vaccines -- including the MMR -- cause autism," he said, adding that the government has been settling autism-related cases without much fanfare since the early 1990s.
At least some of those court cases involved children with acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM), an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord that damages the material that insulates nerve fibers in the brain. (The damage from the inflammation, which the court ruled was caused by the MMR vaccine, eventually led to pervasive developmental delay.) Wakefield's research focused on gastrointestinal issues, not brain inflammation, but he is currently studying the possibility of a neurological-gastrointestinal link, something that has been seen in other species. "The gut-brain link is more of a scientific interest," he said. "We're looking at it in the primate model as well, and how it might affect the developing brain."
The loss of his medical license probably will affect his research, Wakefield said, and he considers the British government's condemnation of his work to be an effort to discredit him because, he said, people fear accountability. "The government is conceding [a link] in secret or in court, but publically saying vaccines are safe," he said. "My job as a scientist is to try and find out what that truth is."
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.