Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former doctor infamous for linking vaccines with autism, has reignited public health concerns after appearing in London this week to publicise a documentary backing his discredited claims.
Wakefield, who directed Vaxxed, was struck off in 2010 after the General Medical Council ruled that he acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in a fraudulent 1998 study claiming a link between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
The study, according to reports at the time, led to a decline in vaccination rates.
Wakefield spoke at the London screening on Tuesday, and on Friday The Times ignited further controversy by reporting that the documentary was being sold on Amazon Instant Video and Apple’s iTunes, while also been available on video sharing site Vimeo.
The revelation has stoked fears the documentary may infect public opinion and again lead to a decline in vaccination rates, and that Wakefield could hamper vaccination programmes in Europe.
So who is Andrew Wakefield, and how did he become such a divisive figure?
WHO IS ANDREW WAKEFIELD?
Andrew Wakefield, 60, is a former gastroenterologist and medical researcher who sparked international debate in 1998 when he linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism, while working at London’s Royal Free Hospital.
His findings, which were published in medical journal The Lancet, were later credited with leading to a decline in parents vaccinating their children.
Two years after Wakefield’s study was published, The Lancet retracted the story after the General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct - among more than 30 other charges - for acting “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in conducting his study. The decision followed an earlier GMC ruling that found Wakefield acted unethically.
During the two-and-a-half-year case, the longest in GMC history, Wakefield was accused of carrying out invasive tests on vulnerable children that were against their best interests; carrying out tests without having the ethical approval or relevant qualifications, and even gathering blood samples by paying children £5 at his son’s birthday party, a BBC report from the time states.
Wakefield had maintained before the decision that the allegations against him were unfair and after being struck off, said: “Efforts to discredit and silence me through the GMC process have provided a screen to shield the government from exposure on the MMR vaccine scandal.”
Following the controversy, Wakefield moved to the United States where he has now become a leading member of the “anti-vaxxer” movement.
WHAT IS VAXXED?
The documentary is based on Wakefield’s 2010 book “Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines — The Truth Behind a Tragedy” in which he frames himself as a truth-teller unfairly targeted by the medical establishment, Statnews opined.
The documentary claims that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention orchestrated a conspiracy to cover up the “true” reason for America’s rising autism diagnosis rates - vaccines.
Wakefield’s theory is widely discredited with studies by the independent, non-profit Institute of Medicine, the World Health Organization and the CDC all finding that there is no link between receiving vaccines and developing autism spectrum disorder, a report by the The Huffington Post reported in July last year said. That story followed news that Robert De Niro had decided to no longer feature Vaxxed at the Tribeca Film Festival due to its controversial claims.
Vaxxed is said to have made more than $1.1 million (£930,000) at the box office and is thought to have been viewed online by hundreds of thousands of people in both the US and UK.
The documentary, according to The Times, was meant to have its premier at the Curzon cinema in Soho last month but was moved to a private event at Regent’s University London this week. Before coming to London it showed in Paris on Monday.
While Wakefield’s claims are not new, doctors and scientists are worried the documentary will lead to a decline in parents vaccinating their children, and have called for Apple and Amazon to stop selling Vaxxed.
Edzard Ernst, professor of emeritus of complementary medicine at Exeter University, told The Times: “Any company or person trying to make money by alarming people thus endangering public health is not just unethical and immoral but also despicable and irresponsible.
“Wakefield’s data has been shown to be wrong. That he still insists on discouraging people from getting vaccinated is disturbing and a risk to public health. I just hope the British public recognises a charlatan when they see one.”
Helen Bedford, professor of child public health at University College London, told The Times that the film lacks any credible scientific evidence.
WHERE IS WAKEFIELD NOW?
After leaving London’s Royal Free Hospital in December 2001, Wakefield continued his research at the International Child Development Centre in Florida, along with alternative medicine practitioner Jeff Bradstreet.
Three years later, in 2004, Wakefield started work at Thoughtful House research centre in Texas, where he served as executive director until February 2010, when the General Medical Council released its findings into his UK study.
Recently, In January, Wakefield turned up at one of US President Donald Trump’s inaugural balls, prompting fears his discredited claims had gained some traction within the new administration.
In the video Wakefield is heard saying: “Just looking around to see if there’s anyone important here - see if I can prevail upon them to make the world a better place for children with autism, a safer place for children.
“What we need now is a huge shakeup at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — a huge shakeup. We need that to change dramatically.”
While Apple and Amazon did not comment on offering Vaxxed for sale, video sharing website Vimeo has said its platform was an open one, which meant any filmmaker or distribution company could sell videos directly to the public.