In 1998 a paper was published in the prestigious English medical journal the Lancet, which changed the course of the lives of many children. Some would argue for the worst, but a significant and highly vocal minority would disagree.
The paper, by Dr Andrew Wakefield claimed his research demonstrated that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella was linked to autism in young children. It cannot be unequivocally claimed that the vaccine never causes autism in rare cases, but we know that tin the first three months of 2009 the World Health Organization reported a 300% rise in measles compared to the same period in 2008. Measles kills between 1 and 3 of every 1,000 infected children and carries a range of serious complications. We also know that the research on which the assertion was based was falsified and that Wakefield perpetrated an ‘elaborate fraud’ for his own personal gain.
Brian Deer, a British investigative journalist revealed the deception in articles published in The Sunday Times which resulted in Wakefield being struck off the medical register. Deer has now published a book “The Doctor who Fooled the World” an attempt to make sense of how this could have happened. The author notes that with the development of a vaccine for COVID-19 and the deep reluctance of many people to accept it, this is even more urgent. The current peer review system is inadequate and better processes need to be in place for credibility to be restored.
So why is this relevant to those of us who work with children and their families? The answer is both specific and general. If the vaccine is successfully developed and available this may well present as a major source of conflict between parents where one holds a strong anti-vaccination position and their partner disagrees. It is crucial that practitioners know the facts and can fairly and neutrally engage in the conversation. More generally, we, like doctors, source our ideas from refereed journals and have been guilty of adopting approaches that in retrospect were not good. Just because someone asserts it is so does not make it right. Approaching all information from an appropriately critical and questioning stance may well protect our field and our clients from the harm done by those who lie.
Deer, Brian ‘The Doctor who Fooled the World’ Scribe 2020