The man behind the autism scare: Physician defends his theory

The New York Times this week profiled Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who authored the first study linking vaccines to autism, highlighting his evolution from "renegade" researcher to a "martyr" for a theory that he continues to vigorously defend.

In 1998, Wakefield published a study in the Lancet that claimed to identify a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and autism. However, the study has been widely discredited for the lack of controls, the linking of three common conditions and the reliance on parental recall. The Lancet retracted the article in February 2010, and 10 of the original 13 authors have denounced it.

Since then, Wakefield "has become one of the most reviled doctors of his generation" and has been widely blamed for low childhood vaccination rates, the Times reports. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) this year published a three-part series by journalist Brian Deer, which called Wakefield's research fraudulent and uncovered a money trail behind the study.

Wakefield stands by theory

The backlash against his research has "become a kind of affirmation" for Wakefield, the Times reports, noting that the more he defends his findings, "the more important he seems to consider it." Wakefield also says he believes public health officials and drug companies "have aligned against him" and that they pay bloggers to write negative comments about him online. He also "wouldn't be surprised" to discover that public-health officials inflated measles-related mortalities. "Having been rejected by mainstream medicine, Wakefield… has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream medicine in return," the Times reports.

Wakefield's only regret was holding a press conference to announce his findings. Without a press conference, "the media response might not have been so inflammatory; vaccination rates might not have taken such a hit;" and Wakefield might not have been accused of "provoking hysteria with calculated hype," the Times reports. However, he believes that public health officials "would have come after him" with or without the conference.

For followers, Wakefield is 'a rare voice of certainty'

As Wakefield continues to defend his theory, he relies on followers to finance his work and provide the "emotional scaffolding that allows him to believe himself a truth-teller," the Times reports. For parents of autistic children, Wakefield can be "a rare voice of certainty" in the face of a "mysterious" disease by leveraging his celebrity and empathy to make an impression and generate loyalty. According to the co-founder of Generation Rescue, a group that challenges vaccine safety, "to our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one."

Wakefield's impact extends beyond vaccine scare

In addition to influencing global vaccination rates, Wakefield's theory also slowed research examining the connection between gastrointestinal conditions and autism. Pat Levitt, a University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine neuroscientist and autism researcher, currently studies gastrointestinal issues in autism patients. Although he does not believe there is a causal link between the conditions, he notes that gastrointestinal issues have been dismissed partly because physicians associate concerns with "quackery and vaccine fears," the Times reports. "Bad science…set us back 10 years," Levitt says (Dominus, Times, 4/20).

Next in the Daily Briefing

Editor's Picks:

Read now