Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hoax Alert: Autism and Vaccine Link Based on Fraud

In honor of the 1-year anniversary of Modern School, I am reposting some of my favorite articles from the previous year. This one follows a common theme in Modern School: debunking popular myths and misconceptions, particularly around health and science. (I also really liked the old school public health posters from Wikipedia)
Anti-Vaxxers—You’ve Been Duped!
From Wiki Common
The decade long effort to link vaccinations with autism was based on fraudulent research by British physician, Andrew Wakefield, who has since been completely discredited and banned from practicing medicine. His research, first published in The Lancet, in 1998, connected the MMR vaccine to autism and stomach ailments, setting off a worldwide hysteria that led to a dramatic drop in immunization rates in the U.S. and U.K., and a rise in Measles and other preventable diseases, including some deaths. Numerous studies followed that proved that there was no link between vaccines and autism. (See the reports from the CDC and the National Institute of Medicine).

It is shocking that a world-wide panic could be triggered by a single research paper, and even more so when one considers the serious flaws in this paper, such as the fact that it was based on the statistically insignificant sample size of 12 patients or that its findings have never been replicated. However, this was not just a case of negligent or sloppy research, but a deliberate hoax, perpetrated with the collaboration of anti-vaccination activists for the purpose of financial gain.  Wakefield, himself, was paid more than 400,000 pounds (about $750,000) by lawyers to help them win their lawsuit against Aventis Pasteur, SmithKlineBeecham, and Merck, on behalf of parents of autistic children. His work for the lawyers began two years before his Lancet publication, thus creating a significant conflict of interest that biased his research.

From Wiki Commons
Of the 12 children Wakefield claimed had contracted regressive autism from vaccines, only 1 actually had this severe form of autism and 3 didn’t have any form of autism whatsoever. Many of the children had autism symptoms prior to being vaccinated. However, when the children’s symptoms didn’t fit his hypothesis, he simply changed the data.  Furthermore, the children did not come from a random sample, as he had claimed. Most of his subjects were the children of litigants seeking compensation from vaccine companies.

Committing Science For Fun and Profit
Wakefield was not just making a lot of money working for lawyers. He also had developed his own alternative measles vaccine which he claimed was safer than the MMR vaccine. However, in order to make any money from his vaccine, he needed to discredit the MMR vaccine, thus providing another conflict of interest and incentive to alter his data.

Why Were So Many Suckered?
In the Wake of Wakefield: Risk-perception and Vaccines, David Ropeik points out several interesting tendencies in how humans perceive risks which may contribute to parents’ willingness to believe the vaccine-autism link or to decide not to have their children vaccinated.

From Wiki Commons
  • Human-made risks seem scarier than natural ones (vaccines are human-made) 
  •  Risks with small benefits seem like bad risks to take (vaccine protect us from diseases that are relatively rare, so the benefits of vaccination seem minimal)
  • Risks imposed on us feel more threatening than those we choose voluntarily
  • There is increased fear when we don’t trust those in charge (as in the medical industry, and as a result of the numerous pharmaceutical recalls—Vioxx, DES, thalidomide, Phen-Fen, etc)
  • Risks to kids evoke much more fear than similar risks to adults.

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