The damage done A study by Andrew Wakefield, right, helped fuel media attention to the vaccine-autism story, until Brian Deer exposed his work as deeply flawed. (Left: Courtesy of Brian Deer; Right: Anthony Devlin / Associated Press)
In 1998, The Lancet, one of the most respected medical journals, published a study by lead author Andrew Wakefield, a British physician who claimed there might be a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and autism, the developmental disorder that afflicts one out of every 88 children in the US. The paper coincided with growing concern among parents in the US and UK about a possible connection between the rising number of childhood vaccinations and the rising rate of autism among kids. Although the trends were only coincidental, Wakefield’s paper helped spark a debate about the supposed link that has played out in the media over the last 15 years.
Among scientists, however, there really was never much of a debate; only a small group of researchers ever even entertained the theory about autism. The coverage rarely emphasized this, if it noted it at all, and instead propagated misunderstanding about vaccines and autism and gave credence to what was largely a manufactured controversy. As Ben Goldacre, a British doctor and media critic, wrote in his 2008 bestseller, Bad Science: “[Y]ou will see news reporters, including the BBC, saying stupid things like ‘The research has since been debunked.’ Wrong. The research never justified the media’s ludicrous over-interpretation. If they had paid attention, the scare would never have even started.”
The consequences of this coverage go beyond squandering journalistic resources on a bogus story. There is evidence that fear of a link between vaccines and autism, stoked by press coverage, caused some parents to either delay vaccinations for their children or decline them altogether. To be sure, more than 90 percent of children in both the US and the UK receive the recommended shots according to schedule, but in 2012, measles infections were at an 18-year high in the UK, reflecting low and bypassed immunization in some areas. In the US, vaccine-preventable diseases reached an all-time low in 2011, but the roughly one in 10 children who get their shots over a different timeframe than the one recommended by the medical establishment, and the less than 1 percent who go entirely unvaccinated, are enough to endanger some communities. And American and British authorities have blamed recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough on decisions to delay or decline vaccination.
Beginning in 2004, Brian Deer, a British investigative journalist, brought a measure of redemption to journalism’s performance on this story, publishing a series of articles about improprieties in Wakefield’s work that culminated with the British General Medical Council stripping Wakefield of his license to practice in 2010, and The Lancet retracting his paper. For most journalists, that should have effectively put an end to the autism story. But those who never bought the vaccine-autism link—in the press and elsewhere—have been waiting for the proverbial nail in the coffin on this story for years, and it never seems to come. In April, for instance, The Independent in London published an op-ed by Wakefield, in which he trotted out his argument about the mmr vaccine in the context of the current measles outbreak in Wales.
Contrary to popular belief, the autism scare didn’t begin immediately after publication of Wakefield’s 1998 paper. Initially, science and health journalists who, as Goldacre and others have noted, “were often fairly capable of balancing risks and evidence,” handled most of the coverage and kept the story in its proper context. But the scare began to gain momentum in 2001, driven in large part by Wakefield, but also by the refusal of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife to say whether or not they had vaccinated their son, Leo, which raised suspicions nationwide. (Years later, they acknowledged that Leo was, in fact, vaccinated on schedule.)