Vol. 37 January 15, 2011 Let’s Call A Quack a “Quack”

“Since the introduction of the first vaccine, there has been opposition to vaccination…Since the 18th century, fear and mistrust have arisen every time a new vaccine has been introduced.Ultimately, society must recognize that science is not a democracy in which the side with the most votesor the loudest voices gets to decide what is right.”
– The Age-Old Struggle against the Antivaccinationists, Poland and Jacobson, NEJM 1/13/11, p.97

It is time to call a Quack a Quack! Dr.. Andrew Wakefield’s bad science suggesting a link between measles vaccination and autism has been revealed to be also fraudulent! Besides faking and altering data on the 12 (yes, only twelve) patients in his original report, Dr. Wakefield received close to $643,000 for helping lawyers sue pharmaceutical companies working on rival vaccines. “Quackery” is usually defined as selling for profit a medical notion, or lotion, whose benefits are not supported by reason or knowledge.

The U.K. Grand Medical Council has “erased” his name from the medical register. This is the same as stripping him of his medical license, and don’t you just love the British for describing it as an “erasure”. In another quaint British linguistic quirk the act of actually administering the vaccine was often called a “jab”, and so the proponents of giving the vaccine were labeled as “The Jabbers”. The charges and counter charges can get a bit murky, but this several minute annotated video of Dr. Wakefield’s own statement clarifies the issues very well.  Dr. Wakefield currently resides in Texas continuing to attract desperate parents with autistic children, but does not have a U.S. medical license.

It seems incredible to me that his assertions based on 12 patients has stood up for so long in the face of several studies of thousands of children in different countries, numerous peer reviews, and, even, a U.S. federal court decision debunking the connection between measles vaccine and autism. Will this new revelation of false data and fraud quench the voices of superstition?

I doubt it. A recently published book, The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin explores the reasons this particular superstition has persisted.  His list includes (1) :

1.the democratization of information via the Internet,
2.Americans’ negative response against anything “perceived as infringing on individual liberty”,
3. skepticism of the medical establishment,
4. shoddy shock-seeking journalism,
5. the romance of lone-wolf skeptics tilting against establishment windmills,
6. the development of a sense of community among anti-vaccine activists,
7.journalism that not only tolerated misinformation but also validated “the notion that our feelings are a more reliable barometer of reality than the facts.”

Quackery, of course, existed and thrived a long time before the Internet, before America, before journalism, and even before the establishment of a “medical establishment” though that it is what actually defined it, so this contemporary list fails to fully explain the phenomenon. Professor Michael Shermer, editor of Skeptic Magazine, lists 25 fallacies that lead us to believe weird things (2). Michael Barrett MD explains in detail how quackery sells.

People who continue to rail against MMR vaccinations due to the fear of autism are no longer quaint nor merely superstitious. They should be called “quacks”. They put hundreds of children, and themselves as young adults having their own children, needlessly at risk of a preventable disease with serious complications..

1. The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear, Seth Mnookin, Simon & Schuster , 2010
2. Why People Believe Weird Things, Michael Shermer, 1997

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