The Doctor Who Fooled the World

Brian Deer

The Doctor Who Fooled the World
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The Doctor Who Fooled the World

Brian Deer

In February 1998, a then-unknown British doctor, Andrew Wakefield, published an explosive scientific paper in a top medical journal, The Lancet. Researching twelve developmentally challenged children, he claimed to have found evidence that MMR, the lifesaving three-in-one vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, was causing a frightening ‘new syndrome' of autism and bowel disease. As a result, a generation of young parents were terrified, and vaccination rates plummeted.


In The Doctor Who Fooled the World, Brian Deer cuts to the heart of the most damaging medical conspiracy of our time. The only journalist to crack Wakefield’s secrets, Deer explains how he gained legal access to patients' records, uncovering the truth about their histories and diagnoses, His landmark fifteen-year inquiry saw Wakefield struck from the medical register, his research retracted, and his claims about MMR dubbed ‘an elaborate fraud'.

In this riveting detective story, Deer lays bare the rigged research, secret business schemes, and financial and commercial conflicts of interest that lay behind Wakefield’s original false claims - and the continuing smear campaigns that have aimed to keep the truth hidden.

Now resurrected in the United States, Wakefield dominates a broader international anti-vaccine campaign, exporting his claims everywhere. Alarmingly, widespread outbreaks of measles have returned to threaten children’s health. As before, the facts don’t fit the story, but that hasn’t got in the way of Wakefield’s new campaign.

Review

On day one of Dr Andrew Wakefield’s hearing for serious professional misconduct, the staff of the UK’s General Medical Council (GMC) took turns to read out ninety-three pages of charges against Wakefield and two of his colleagues. The hearing was a result of the GMC reinvestigating and confirming the research of investigative journalist Brian Deer, a specialist medical reporter with the Sunday Times and now author of The Doctor Who Fooled the World.

Nearly ten years earlier in February of 1998, Wakefield, then a gastroenterologist of the Royal Free Hospital Medical School in Hampstead, had a paper published in the Lancet, one of the world’s top medical journals. The paper outlined a pilot study of twelve children and suggested the existence of a ‘new syndrome’ of regressive autism and bowel disease, and also suggested an association between the syndrome and the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) triple vaccine. A strong reaction from the media and the public followed, with vaccination numbers plummeting and parents left feeling guilty and confused.

Deer has found overwhelming evidence against Wakefield, including invasive testing, selection bias, data fixing, and lack of ethical approval, as well as refusal to recreate the study to a ‘gold standard’. Worst of all is a jaw-dropping conflict of interest involving an agreement with a lawyer, made two years before the paper was published, that Wakefield would specifically target the MMR vaccine in an upcoming study. Wakefield was struck off the medical register by the GMC and cannot practice as a doctor, but his influence has followed an entirely different trajectory.

Vaccination is an emotional and often polarising issue, but it is important to note that Deer’s primary concern here is to hold Wakefield accountable for the stress, fear and guilt he created just to forward his own fame and fortune. It is in the final chapters where Deer revisits the parents of the pilot-study children that this really hits home. The writing comes from a more emotional place and we see why Deer has said he could not let the story go.


Amanda Rayner is the returns officer at Readings Carlton.

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