BMJ puts knife into Andrew Wakefield, twists it, and then some

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) last week published the strongest personal attack on a doctor that I have ever read in a medical journal. The feature length article was written by journalist Brian Deer who has hounded Andrew Wakefield for many years. His diatribe accuses Wakefield of deliberate scientific fraud for his own personal gain. Deer unpicks the case history and investigation results of each of the12 children described in Wakefield's original 1998 Lancet paper and attempts to show that Wakefield deliberately falsified these. I am not going to attempt to challenge all of Deer's many assertions, nor do I wish to be drawn into this charade. However these extraordinary allegations demand some response. Many centre around the fact that elements of the hospital medical records, as reported in the 1998 paper, are at odds with other aspects of the children's medical records, mainly those of the children's General Practitioners (GPs). This is hardly surprising as the hospital doctors who recorded the children's medical history (something that was not, in any case, done by Dr Wakefield) would not have had access to the GPs' medical notes. Medical histories, taken at different times by different healthcare professionals will inevitably have some inconsistencies.
Deer's allegation that the reports of the bowel samples were changed from normal to showing colitis has already been answered by Dr Susan Davies, a histopathologist and co-author of the 1998 paper, who previously explained to Brian Deer that 'subtle' changes in the children's gut pathology did not imply 'insignificant' changes.
What is so disturbing is that the editor of the BMJ, who should have known better, appears to have fallen for Deer's spurious arguments hook, line and sinker and did not even show the standard scientific courtesy of allowing Wakefield an opportunity to respond to these allegations, which are after all extremely serious if one can take them seriously.
We have to take a step back and wonder what is really going on here. To go to such extreme – and desperate – lengths to demonise Dr Wakefield (the person, note, not the science) some people must be very afraid. Afraid, presumably, that parents might actually believe something that is blatantly obvious: that is that all vaccines can cause serious adverse reactions, including autism. By denying what is not only obvious but also supported by a wealth of scientific evidence these obsessive vaccine protagonists risk losing the trust of all parents and destroying the whole vaccine programme, the very thing that they are trying to prevent happening.

Added 9 Jan 2011