As early as 1974, there were concerns raised about neurological side effects from the form of the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine then in use. The percentage of parents immunizing their children against pertussis quickly dropped from 70%-30% in Great Britain, as well as other Western societies. This led to major whooping cough outbreaks in Japan and Sweden. Subsequent research found very little evidence to support the theory that the pertussis vaccine could cause brain injury, but they failed to fully calm the fears that many parents had developed about the vaccine. Today, a much simpler and less dangerous form of the pertussis vaccine is included in the combined DPT (Diptheria-Pertussis-Tetanus) vaccine that is part of the standard immunization schedule for school-age children in the US, but a small percentage of parents still remain suspicious of it.
A more serious concern was raised in 1998, when the widely respected British medical journal, The Lancet, published a controversial research paper by British surgeon Andrew Wakefield and 12 other investigators. It reported the discovery of a potential link between the MMR vaccine and symptoms of autism diagnosed in eight of twelve children Wakefield studied at the Royal Free Hospital in London. Wakefield proposed his so-called “leaky gut” theory. It suggests that something in the MMR vaccine creates an inflammation in the walls of the intestines that enables toxins and pathogens to enter the rest of a young child’s body. These cause a variety of conditions in these children, ranging from Crohn’s disease to pancreatic or liver disease, to chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and autism.
In a video released to the press just before his paper’s publication in the Lancet, Wakefield called for the use of the combined MMR vaccine be suspended. The public reaction was immediate, particularly in Great Britain, where the rate of parents permitting the MMR vaccine to be given to their young children plummeted from over 90% to about 60% in some parts of London. However, subsequent, independent research was unable to verify Wakefield’s findings, casting them into doubt in the medical community.
Then, in February, 2004, Wakefield’s scientific objectivity was challenged by Brian Deer, a reporter for the Sunday Times of London. Wakefield was accused of taking a substantial amount of money from lawyers representing the parents of some of the children in his study. They were seeking evidence to sue the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine. One month later, 10 of Wakefield’s 12 collaborators in the paper published by The Lancet retracted their support for its conclusions.
Nevertheless, there were still some in the medical community who were unwilling to totally dismiss Wakefield’s findings, and the safety of the MMR vaccine remained under a cloud.
However, when reporter Deer published new evidence in 2009 that Wakefield deliberately falsified the patient data upon which his 1998 paper was based, his reputation in the British medical community was further discredited. Great Britain’s watchdog for medical ethics, the General Medical Council (GMC), expanded its ongoing investigation into the way in which Wakefield and two of his collaborators had conducted their research on the MMR vaccine. A GMC panel concluded that Wakefield acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” and had conducted unnecessary invasive tests in “callous disregard” for the children in his study. The editors of The Lancet then announced the formal retraction of his 1998 paper from their published record.
Later that year the GMC formally stripped Wakefield of his right to practice medicine in Great Britain, having found him guilty of professional misconduct, dishonesty, and the abuse of the developmentally challenged children in his study.
Today, there are still those who consider Wakefield to be the innocent victim of attacks by a vengeful medical establishment and the vaccine manufacturers with their own vested interests in discrediting his findings. Wakefield has written a book, called “Callous Disregard,” in which he defends the validity of his research against his critics.
There are those who see the attacks on Wakefield as part of a larger conspiracy between government health officials and pharmaceutical companies. There are also still a significant number of parents who cite Wakefield’s research to justify their decision to withhold the MMR vaccine from their child.
Vaccine manufactures have been granted special legal immunity against lawsuits by the families of those who have been injured by their vaccines. Instead, the federal government established the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) in 1988 to compensate those who feel they have been harmed by a vaccine, if they can back their claim with a biologically plausible theory.