In Lieu of Wakefield: Part 1

By Nicole Beaver

I was scrolling through Facebook one early afternoon in June and a post appeared on my screen pertaining to the resurgence of measles in Canada. I decided to look through the comment section–which was not a wise decision–but regardless, I found a treasure trove of the pro and anti vaccination ideologies smattered throughout. A Facebook comment caught my eye: an older gentleman had written that vaccinations had given his granddaughter autism and now “she could never be normal again.” I was floored. Growing up, I had seen and heard such arguments and even had someone ask me if my own autism diagnosis was caused by vaccinations. Being seen as a “fate worse than death” by those who see vaccinations as the cause of my developmental disorder is not what I, and many others on the spectrum, particularly enjoy. With the growing anti-vaccination movement due to concerns with chemicals and ineffective results as well as the fear of giving a child autism, I decided that now is the time to address this very controversial issue. Please note that this article is not to put down others for their choices, but rather to (hopefully) help them understand the damage they may be unintentionally doing.

The Wakefield Study (1998) was published in the scientific journal “The Lancet,” ultimately suggesting that the combination vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella was responsible for triggering an allegedly new condition called “autistic enterocolitis.” According to the BMJ, the former Dr. Wakefield falsified most of his data, which critics quickly pointed out. Essentially, the paper was a “small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs… epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.” Journalist Brian Deer was the first to disprove Wakefield’s claims that the MMR vaccine was dangerous by finding that not one of the 12 cases reported in the paper were free of misrepresentation, undisclosed alteration, and that medical records were, essentially, tampered with. Shortly thereafter, he published a paper on his investigation in 2004, which jumpstarted an internal inquiry by the GMC. They found significant evidence that Wakefield was guilty of ethical violations (his study had conducted invasive investigations on the children without obtaining the necessary ethical clearances) and scientific misrepresentation (they reported that their sampling was consecutive when, in fact, it was selective). And the reason why he did so? He was involved with a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. He had been funded by lawyers who had been engaged by parents in lawsuits against vaccine-producing companies (NCBI – “The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud”). A researcher obviously must stay unbiased and not have figuratively greased palms. Hence, the study was disproven.

If you need any more reason to believe that the study was a fluke, a recent Danish study’s results were published in April of this year, trying to correlate Wakefield’s discovery of autistic enterocolitis. According to Medical News Today, the 2019 Danish Study “does not support that MMR vaccination increases the risk for autism, triggers autism in susceptible children, or is associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination.” The study is readily available to read online for those curious, and Medical News Today provides a link to it. Essentially, they found no correlating evidence with Wakefield’s results. 

Finally, autism is not a disease like Multiple Sclerosis, or a mental illness like depression. It is a neurological and developmental disability that is present at birth and manifests during developmental stages. Autism is a spectrum in the sense that those affected present different symptoms at different levels of severity. For example, I am skilled at socially interacting with peers and am able to maintain eye contact, but I still have issues with judging when it’s my turn to speak in a conversation or sense tension. I am very independent, while another boy with autism that I know will never be able to live on his own. Autism presents itself differently in women and men, but many symptoms remain the same: non-standard ways of learning and approaching problem solving (learning hard things before easier things), deeply focused thinking and passionate interests in specific subjects (“special interests”, like being really interested in Queer Eye), atypical, sometimes repetitive, movement (hand flapping or rocking when stressed or excited), a need for consistency/routine/order and, most famously, difficulty within social situations. Again, these symptoms present themselves at different levels of severity depending on the individual. People do not often realize that I am autistic unless I say so, while others I have met have more obvious signs and greater issues. Finally, the cause of autism right now is unknown, but research has shown that it “has a strong genetic basis, [though] it is unclear whether ASD is explained more by multigene interactions or by rare mutations with major effects” (NCBI). 

In my next article, I will discuss the aftermath of the Wakefield study and how it affected those with autism, and why it is damaging for anti-vaccinators to believe that vaccinations cause autism. Until then, dear readers, have a good start to 2019-2020!

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