The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Andrew Wakefield’s war on vaccines by Brian Deer

‘In some imaginary universe, he might be revered as Professor Sir Andrew Wakefield.’

Who is Andrew Wakefield, and why is he referred to as ‘the father of the anti-vaccine movement?’  Why has this movement gained so much momentum?

Once again, vaccination is a hot topic. Once again, those for vaccination and those against face off. Social media provides an additional vector for the spread of (mis)information. Rumour becomes fact. People remember horror stories. Fears cloud judgement. And, because of non-vaccination, some diseases are returning. Why are people choosing not to have their children vaccinated?

Part of the answer lies in activities undertaken by Andrew Wakefield, then a doctor in the UK, trying to prove a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. His study was published in the Lancet in 1998 and has since been retracted. Mr Deer goes into painstaking detail to provide the background. He provides biographical detail of Andrew Wakefield, a description of the rigged research undertaken to try to prove a connection, and the hopes of those families struggling with a disability and looking for answers. Heartbreaking stuff.

Fifteen years of investigation: a long investigation, several different players (many of whom only had parts of the story) and plenty of statistics. I read page after page, wondering how on earth Andrew Wakefield got away with presenting misinformation as science. I felt sorry for the families caught up in his ‘proof’, and angry with the medical establishment for not acting earlier. So, Andrew Wakefield is banned from medicine and has left the UK for the USA where he is feted by conspiracy theorists. Sigh.

As Mr Deer writes:

‘The way I saw it, it was never about the science, the children or the mothers. It had always been about himself.’

I found this a difficult book to read for two reasons. Firstly, I really did not want to believe that the checks and balances that should apply to research had failed, and secondly, I feel incredibly sad that people continue to believe in a totally discredited study (some of the children involved had signs of autism before they had the MMR vaccine). The downside of children not being vaccinated is a rise in preventable diseases. Diseases which can cause serious illness and may result in death.

Yes, I am aware that there are some children cannot have some vaccinations for medical reasons. But those reasons do not apply to most. I am absolutely in favour of the rigorous testing of vaccinations, to identify possible side effects and issues.

I believe that vaccination saves lives. I remember standing with my father, a survivor of the poliomyelitis epidemic of the early 1950s, in a queue in the early 1960s to have the Salk vaccine. I remember how hard it was for my father to stand in that queue. He never fully recovered from polio.

I wish that those who don’t believe in vaccination would read this book.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith