Editorial: Truth comes limping after

Last updated 05:00 18/02/2014

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OPINION: Andrew Wakefield is a doctor disgraced; his research disproven.

But the delusion he generated still swirls internationally and the ugly results have been felt in New Zealand.

Wakefield fanned worldwide mistrust in the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with research published in 1998 warning of a link with autism.

There isn't one. Never was.

But there the report stood, in The Lancet no less, and people sure snapped to attention.

What tends to be overlooked is that the prestigious journal published a commentary at the time, urging caution. But that wasn't what the media seized upon.

Before you knew it, Oprah's audience was nodding gravely to sage warnings to trust their "mummy instincts" over what their doctors might be telling them.

Wakefield's research was based on hazy memories of the unnamed parents of 12 children. Most of them had behavioural problems long before they were vaccinated.

Much worse than that, Wakefield's work wasn't just wrong, nor just shonky. It was dishonest.

He changed and misreported diagnoses, histories and descriptions.

Charmingly, the children's parents turned out to be clients of a lawyer who had secretly paid the doctor NZ$877,000 to create evidence against the MMR vaccine, while plotting to make a great deal more than that from another vaccine Wakefield was patenting.

Wakefield has been struck off the medical register and to this day insists that MMR is unsafe.

Regrettably, the more thoroughly his research has been exposed and the more strident his critics (aka pretty much the entire scientific and medical community) have sounded, the more martyrish he has appeared to those parents who are more attuned to whistleblowers than to the tedious requirements of classical scepticism.

Now come reports that international data assembled by the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank supports the view of many academics that the Wakefield claims at least contributed to some outbreaks of preventable disease.

Anti-vaccine campaigns in New Zealand have certainly taken their toll on MMR rates, bringing them as low as 60 per cent in some areas.

And what do you know? We've had several waves of the disease.

Immunisations have picked up, and thank heavens for that.

Forgive the unlovely phrase, but the more children who are not vaccinated the more our collective "herd immunity" is compromised and greater the chances of resurgent outbreaks.

What's now called "Wakefieldism" has not been confined only to MMR. Public suspicion has spread to polio, whooping cough and meningitis jabs.

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After The Lancet issued its retraction, Auckland University's Immunisation Advisory Centre director of research Helen Petousis-Harris was moved to quote Jonathan Swift: "Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late: the jest is over and the tale has had its effect."

- The Southland Times

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