Shadow of 1998 Wakefield report still looms over vaccines


Voice of discredited doctor continues to receive support -- and money -- from conspiracy theorist community

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Image by Lisa Ferdinando

By Freya Milwain

IN 1998, ANDREW Wakefield published a report in respected medical journal The Lancet, alleging a causal link between the MMR vaccine and regressive autism in children.

Subsequently, it was uncovered that the study was unethically executed and relied on manipulated and false data, and in 2010 it was retracted by the journal. However, 25 years later, it still affects the perception of vaccines and is a driving force in the continuing anti-vaccine movement.

The report documented a case series that investigated only 12 children, and contained a multitude of issues. Much of the data reported had been manipulated, for example the time periods between exposure to the vaccine and the onset of symptoms of a behavioural disorder was changed in several of the children studied, and three out of the nine children reported to have autism were in fact never diagnosed. Subsequent attempts to replicate the results by large-scale studies failed.

Wakefield stood to profit significantly from products predicted to surge in popularity if the safety of the vaccine was called into question, such as self testing kits and the single-dose measles vaccine. This provides motivation for bias against the MMR vaccine when carrying out the case series, which was unknown to The Lancet at the time of publication. For this reason, in 2004, the journal acknowledged that it shouldn’t have published the report due to this conflict of interest.

Due to the procedures involved with such a damning action, it took 12 years for The Lancet to fully retract the report, leaving a lasting impact on public perception of vaccine safety. MMR vaccine uptake fell in the following years to well below the necessary level of 94 percent for herd immunity. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the percentage of the UK population receiving a vaccination against measles fell from 91 percent in 1997 to 81 percent in 2004. The uptake of other vaccines has continued to fall in recent years.

Wakefield was stricken from the UK medical register in 2010, however even without his status of credibility, he continues to campaign against the use of the MMR vaccine. When the report was released, he advocated for the use of separate vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella, but in recent years has turned toward other vaccine conspiracies.

While discredited, he continues to profit from the controversy surrounding his report, including by writing, producing and directing 2016’s Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe which alleged that the Centre for Disease Control concealed data, proving a link between vaccines and autism. The documentary was withdrawn from the Tribeca film festival after public outrage.

Scepticism towards vaccines became a pressing issue during the Covid-19 pandemic. As of January 2023, over two years from the beginning of the vaccine rollout in the UK, only around 75 percent of the eligible population are fully vaccinated according to the WHO. The USA is lower still, at less than 70 percent. It is unknown what threshold must be met for herd immunity to Covid, but with new strains cropping up it seems unlikely that it will disappear at the current level of uptake.

Covid vaccines are treated with particular suspicion due to the speed with which they were created and tested. The MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988, 10 years before Wakefield’s report, and the fact that it was accepted at the time suggests a lack of certainty in approval procedures.

However, Wakefield did not invent scepticism of vaccines – the anti-vaccine movement has a long history, going back to the creation of a primitive smallpox innoculation in 1796. It was made compulsory in 1853 to immense controversy, and resulted in the forming of organisations such as the Anti-Vaccine League. Despite opposition, the rollout was a success, and smallpox was officially declared eradicated in 1980 by the World Health Assembly – to this day, the only disease to be eliminated purely by the use of vaccines.

General scepticism towards medical institutions may be partially motivated by some of the other high-profile errors and controversies that have occurred historically. The Thalidomide infant-mortality tragedy in the 1950s and the Tuskegee experiments, which only ended in 1972, reduced faith in the medical industry and cultivated public resentment. While the medical industry has improved in recent years, a long history of scientific missteps and malfeasance is difficult to escape. Vaccines in particular may remain a polarising issue for years to come.