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The Sciences

Did the founder of the antivax movement fake autism-vaccine link?

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The UK-based Sunday Times has a potential bombshell on their site; they claim Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who started the whole "vaccines cause autism" garbage, faked his data to make that claim. About 10 years ago, Wakefield published a study dealing with children who were autistic, developing symptoms shortly after getting their shots, and linked this with irritated intestinal tracts. This study came under a lot of fire, and eventually most of the authors retracted the conclusion that autism was associated with "environmental factors", that is, vaccinations. By then, though, it was too late, and the modern antivaccination movement was born. The Sunday Times investigated Wakefield's original research, and alleges that the symptoms Wakefield reports in his research do not match hospital records of the 12 children studied at the time. In only one case were there symptoms that arose after the injection; in many of the other cases symptoms started before the children had been vaccinated (in fact, there have been allegations for some time that neurological issues occurred in the children before they had actually been vaccinated, casting doubt on Wakefield's work). Also, hospital pathologists reported that the bowels of many of the children were normal, but Wakefield reported them as having inflammatory disease in his journal paper. If these allegations are true, then it means that Wakefield out-and-out lied in his original work. He has denied this, according to the Sunday Times, but won't make further comments. This may cause a firestorm in the antivax community, but there are two things I will guarantee: the first is that in the end antivaxxers will stick to their beliefs that vaccines cause health problems like autism, because this is not and never has been, for them, about the facts and evidence. It's a belief system, and like most other belief systems, it is impenetrable to evidence. If you have any doubts, I suggest you read the comments to the post I made the other day about measles being on the rise in the UK. One commenter on that post is saying all manners of outrageous things, and ignores the evidence that I (and a pediatrician) have left in the comments to him. Second, and somewhat related, this hardly matters. Many, many independent tests have shown that vaccines are unrelated to the onset of autism. There is vast evidence that vaccines are very safe, and what small risk they pose is massively outweighed by the good they do. Whether Wakefield faked his results or not, he's still wrong. The good news is that if this pans out, then perhaps there will be a net loss of people from the antivax side of the argument. The ones who are true believers won't waver in their faith, of course, but anyone with doubts may finally see reality for the way it is. I will be very interested indeed on following this story. If anyone finds more information, please send it along. Tip o' the syringe to BABloggee Todd Cissell.

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