The Doctor Who Fooled the World by Brian Deer
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.