If you’re not familiar with former doctor Andrew Wakefield, here is a quick primer: Mr. Wakefield was (and continues to be) primarily responsible for the widespread misconception that there is a possible link between autism spectrum disorders and vaccination. In 1998, Wakefield published a case series of 12 children where he suggested a link between gastrointestinal disease, autism, and the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. In addition to the study entirely lacking scientific merit and rigor, investigative journalist and pharmaceutical critic Brian Deer uncovered fraudulent reporting and serious conflicts of interest. Despite all appearances, Wakefield was not an objective researcher, but was funded by a legal team launching a class action lawsuit against MMR manufacturers. In addition, Wakefield had previously applied for a single-jab measles vaccine patent. Wakefield possessed not one, but two serious conflicts of interest where he stood to benefit financially by slanting his research.
In addition to retraction of his original paper from The Lancet, the UK’s General Medical Council revoked his medical license and barred him from practicing medicine. Beyond the fraud and dishonesty, they found that Wakefield acted with “callous disregard for any distress or pain the children [in the study] might suffer.” Despite being one of the worst medical and scientific debacles in modern history, Wakefield used it to his advantage by becoming the ‘expert’ voice of the anti-vaccine movement, enriching himself while deceiving the public at large.
Today, Wakefield has started life anew in Texas where he produces anti-vax conspiracy documentaries and influences gullible celebrities and politicians ranging from Jenny McCarthy – who helped popularized the anti-vax movement in North America – to Donald Trump, who – despite not possessing basic critical reasoning skills – is the current president of the USA.
But that’s not all Mr. Wakefield occupies his time with; he also is quite engaged in speaking tours and evidently takes any platform that will host (and presumably pay for) his propaganda. Of course, this has all been written about quite extensively. So what’s left?
What’s left is the big picture. What’s left is Andy Wakefield’s evolution from a medical doctor and researcher to full-time charlatan who profits from fear and paranoia. The progression of Wakefield’s career and scaremongering is worth examining because it illustrates how a lack of moral regard (a callous disregard, if you will) can be used to fuel a movement built on conspiracy and distrust of expertise.
These points are important to emphasize because of how Wakefield is viewed and idolized by his supporters; they see him as a public defender who has been demonized by a vast conspiracy. The foundations of this belief, however, rely on Wakefield’s integrity as a fervent pursuer of truth. Such a characterization of Wakefield couldn’t be further from reality.
Since the initial scare and fallout from Wakefield’s fraudulent paper, a substantial effort has been put into examining the safety of vaccinations and their ingredients, including multi-dose vaccines like the MMR that Wakefield initially raised concerns over. These studies have continued to affirm the safety of existing vaccination schedules and have dismissed links between autism and vaccination. An honest scientist would admit the failure of their pet hypothesis, but Wakefield’s approach has been profoundly different.
Wakefield was recently invited to give a speech on vaccination at the less-than-reputable chiropractic college Life University. Did he give a balanced and comprehensive talk on current state of immunization science? Of course not.
Andy delivered an hour of anti-vax propaganda going as far as claiming that measles might have offered benefits if it continued to infect us. He claimed that vaccination has “destroyed herd immunity.” He claimed that we will experience a “plague” of neurodevelopmental disorders and allergies in children as a result of vaccination. He claimed that vaccines will increasingly fail at protecting us from the contagious diseases they prevent. He even suggested that vaccination may cause the next great extinction.
It’s important to note how this speech should continue to undermine what little credibility Wakefield has left. In addition to diverging from scientific and medical evidence, Wakefield has evidently changed his stance from “vaccine safety advocate” to “vaccines are bringing the apocalypse.” This is important because Wakefield’s proponents often portray him as someone who is supportive of vaccination generally, but critical of vaccination schedules. This is obviously no longer the case.
Watching his speech, it’s clear where Wakefield’s talents lie; he is a persuasive and captivating speaker who knows precisely how to engage his target audience.
Ironically, the only impending apocalypse from infectious diseases will be a result of anti-vax efforts as measles outbreaks once again plague developed nations and polio reemerges in areas of low vaccination. Wakefield’s advocates need to recognize that his approach has evolved in exactly the way one would expect to capitalize on the anti-vaccine movement. His game isn’t science; it’s fear.