Use the MMR Vaccine


(This 1035th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 23, 2011.)


I urge every parent to have your children vaccinated with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.


Wait a minute, isn't that the inoculation that causes autism? No, it does not, but there is an unfortunate story behind that belief.


In 1998, a team of British physicians led by Andrew Wakefield, associated MMR with autism in an article in Lancet, the major British medical journal. The American Journal of Gastroenterology then published Wakefield's follow-up article.


The response to this publication was, as you might expect, widespread panic. News spread rapidly and many parents refused to have their children inoculated. This led to a rise in the number of measles cases.


Isn't measles just one of those brief episode childhood diseases? Hardly. Each year worldwide an estimated half-million people, mostly children, die of this highly contagious disease. A 1989-1991 epidemic in this country led to 132 deaths.


A follow-up study in 2004 by other researchers failed to confirm Wakefield's results and that same year British newspaper reporter Brian Deer identified serious problems with Wakefield's work. Deer found that several of the twelve children in Wakefield's study had been recruited by a lawyer who was preparing a suit against MMR manufacturers and that litigation lawyers had not only supported Wakefield's research but they had paid him personally over $600,000.


British television broadcast a documentary based on Deer's claims, including two additional disclosures: no measles virus had been found in any Wakefield's subjects and Wakefield was seeking a patent for his own competing vaccine.


Wakefield promptly sued the television station for libel.


That just made things worse. The TV lawyers countered that Wakefield had dishonestly and irresponsibly spread fear that the MMR vaccine might cause autism in some children, "even though he knew that his own laboratory's tests dramatically contradicted his claims," and that he had been unremittingly evasive and dishonest as a cover-up.


As the court case dragged on, the United Kingdom General Medical Council examined professional misconduct charges against Wakefield and two of his co-authors of the Lancet paper. In January 2010, the council ruled against Wakefield on all issues, stating that he had "failed in his duties as a responsible consultant", acted against the interests of his patients, and acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in his research. Five months later Wakefield's and co-author John Walker-Smith's licenses to practice medicine in the United Kingdom were rescinded.


Meanwhile, the journals withdrew support of Wakefield's articles and an investigation into his other publications was initiated. Ten of his co-authors withdrew their support of his findings. Forced by the mounting evidence against him to withdraw his libel suit, Wakefield was ordered by the court to pay the defendant's legal costs.


Just days ago a British Medical Journal editorial stated, "Clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare. Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 childrenŐs cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross."


Unfortunately, the damage has been done. Now comes the saddest part. Will the evidence correct this situation? I think not. Anyone suffering seeks a cause. When I was hospitalized as a child, I asked my roommate, a polio patient, if he knew what caused his affliction. "I ate green apples," he told me. The association of the MMR vaccine with autism is of the same category. Proximity does not indicate causality.


Wakefield's book, "Callous Disregard", claims that he is being mistreated. Now living in this country, he has gained support for his cause from attractive model Jenny McCarthy whose son has autism. While I empathize with McCarthy and her child, I consider Wakefield's cause a cruel distraction.


There are rare reactions to vaccines (information may be downloaded from the Centers for Disease Control website), but the alternative, not being vaccinated, represents a far more serious threat.


Please protect your children with this vaccine.-- Gerry Rising