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Video: License stripped, he stands by autism belief

TODAY contributor
updated 5/24/2010 3:18:10 PM ET 2010-05-24T19:18:10

The doctor who suggested a possible link between childhood vaccines and autism stands by his theory and said on Monday that he will continue his research despite having his medical license revoked Monday.

In a TODAY exclusive, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the most famous face behind the movement of those who believe autism is linked to the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), remains convinced that he is on the right side of the facts, and says he will not be silenced — even after England’s General Medical Council yanked his license to practice medicine.

“This is a little bump on the road, and that’s how it should be perceived,” Wakefield told Matt Lauer live on TODAY Monday. “It’s a bump on a very bumpy road, but it’s a bump. What it does not detract from is the fact that there are millions of children out there suffering, and the fact that the vaccines cause autism.”

The MMR vaccine has been in use since 1971 and has been administered to some 500 million people in 60 countries, including the U.S. Wakefield ignited a firestorm of controversy surrounding MMR when, in 1998, he published a study in the medical journal The Lancet claiming he unearthed eight cases of families reporting autism symptoms appearing within days of their children receiving the inoculation.

Doc ‘acted dishonestly’
The Lancet later retracted the original paper when Wakefield’s findings, which were based on a test group of just 12 children, could not be duplicated in large-scale studies. A large 12-year study of children in California between 1995 to 2007 refuted a link between autism and the mercury-based vaccine preservative thimerosal. It showed that autism cases continued to climb even after thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines in 2001; if there was indeed a link, rates of kids with autism should have declined, researchers from the state Department of Public Health said.

But there were even more troubling aspects to Wakefield’s research. Brian Deer, a reporter for the Sunday Times in London, learned that Wakefield was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to act as a medical expert in a class-action suit against the MMR manufacturers — and the doctor never disclosed that information. He had also paid children attending his child’s birthday party to act as a control group in his study.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield's research could not be duplicated in any large-scale study.

Wakefield has said that a bowel disease, autistic enterocolitis, was connected to autism and the MMR vaccine. In his 1998 study, he said 11 of the 12 children studied had a swollen bowel and claimed it as proof of a new gastrointestinal disease. In 2005, he started a clinic in Austin, Texas, to treat the syndrome. But for a study published in April, independent experts examined hospital reports done on biopsies of the children’s bowel and found that eight of the 11 children actually had normal bowels.

Britain’s GMC studied Wakefield’s case for three years. The panel released its initial findings in January, saying the doctor “acted dishonestly and irresponsibly.” Wakefield stepped down from his job as a researcher in Austin, Texas, and Monday he lost his license to practice medicine in England. (He was never licensed in the United States.)

Still, Wakefield has his supporters. Comedic actress Jenny McCarthy has been vocal in blaming the MMR vaccine for causing autism in her 7-year-old son Evan, and groups of Wakefield backers have decried the sanctions against the doctor.

Wakefield has called the GMC a kangaroo court, and told Lauer that he believes the fix was in from the moment the council began investigating him.

Wakefield’s defense
“It was determined from the beginning,” he said. “I believe the pressure from the government was brought on the GMC to find this ruling.

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“I think the panel, whether they believed they were influenced or not, were certainly of the opinion that this decision has been made from the outset.”

Video: Panel slams autism doc as unethical Wakefield still staunchly defends his original study, claiming independent studies in five countries back his findings, and arguing that the U.S. government has secretly settled with the families of children with autism.

“The American government has conceded that it exists, an actual relationship between vaccines and autism exists, and they’ve actually been secretly settling cases as early as 1991,” Wakefield told Lauer.

When Lauer asked Wakefield whether it’s dangerous to continue promoting an MMR-autism link when it causes many families to shy away from vaccinating their children, Wakefield answered, “Matt, you’re missing the point.

“The point is that despite denying it, in the public relations campaign they’ve used against me and against the parents, they are conceding these in vaccine court.”

Vaccination rates in England dropped sharply after Wakefield’s study was published, leading to a resurgence of measles. Britain reported 1,000 cases in each of the past two years — more than 10 times the figure a decade ago.

While some parents whose children were part of Wakefield’s original study continue to support the doctor and his autism theory, others have pulled their backing. One parent told the Times’ Deer that Wakefield’s “misrepresentation of my son in his research paper is inexcusable.”

Still, Wakefield said he is undaunted in continuing his research and promotion of the notion that MMR and autism are linked. He recently published a book, “Callous Disregard,” which espouses his theory and details the case the British government had made against him.

“My next step is to continue this work to its natural conclusion,” he told Lauer. “These parents aren’t going away, the children are not going away, and I most certainly am not going away.”

And despite having his license pulled, Wakefield says he still answers to the title “doctor.”

“They can’t take away the fact I have a medical degree,” he said.

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