The vaccine-autism controversy: An investigative journalist on dismantling a scam

Brian Deer by Dan HoUK investigative journalist Brian Deer deconstructed the process of
debunking a controversial medical journal paper that — more than a
decade later — is still causing harm. Deer was in town for a panel
discussion hosted by The Canadian Journalism Foundation (which runs J-Source).

The discussion was moderated by Daily Planet host Jay Ingram and featured Penny Park, executive director of Science Media Centre Canada; Dr. Matthew Stanbrook, UHN staff respirologist and a deputy editor of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and Dr. Miriam Shuchman, chair of the Research Ethics Board at Women’s College Hospital.

Deer’s presentation was thorough (and plenty sarcastic), as he explained the story. The short version: Dr. Andrew Wakefield wrote a paper that suggested a handful of children had displayed symptoms of autism just two weeks after receiving a mumps vaccination. The paper was published in 1998 by UK medical journal The Lancet, and subsequently spread wildly, gaining traction from celebrity endorsement and parental fears, among others.

Deer’s journalistic instincts kicked in, and he spent months and months examining the data. He also attended all 217 days of a court hearing, in which all the of the children’s medical records were discussed — which gave him the info he needed to pursue the children’s parents for interviews. He found enough evidence to contradict the claims in Wakefield’s papers, and his eventual story caused The Lancet to revoke their support for the paper — but not before the so-called vaccine-autism link cemented itself in the public mind.

What the paper essentially did, Deer said, was put immense guilt on parents: “Parents of autistic kids led to believe it’s their own fault, for
vaccinating their children against Wakefield’s advice,” Deer says. “That leaves parents
extremely vulnerable.”

The consequences? “In the UK, where vaccination isn’t a condition of school entry, national MMR rates (at age 2) fell from 92% to 79%, and there were outbreaks of measles,” Deer said.

The panelists discussed whether this could happen today (it could), whether it could happen in Canada (with our shoddy research requirements, it could), and the role journalists played in spreading the controversy (question everything, journos).

Read J-Source‘s live coverage of the panel discussion.