Anti-vax Tea Party (Part 1 of 2)

Andrew Wakefield, the British medical researcher notorious for his discredited work that attempted to link autism to the MMR vaccine and inflammatory bowel disease based (largely on bogus analyses of twelve children), stands in the front of the room sporting an adolescent haircut. Giving a warm smile to his audience, over and over again, the man, with the sleeves of his collared shirt rolled up, angrily condemns what he calls an, “effort to erase these children’s histories from the public record.” Composing himself, he continued, “And that will fail. And I will explain to you why it will fail.”

The evening had begun with a brief introduction by a woman representing DAN! or Defeat Autism Now!, an organization that claims to medically treat children with autism. She then passed the proceedings over to Tony Lyons, President and Publisher of Skyhorse Publishing, without whom this event would not be taking place.

Skyhorse is the company that published Wakefield’s book, Callous Disregard. Lyons began his short introduction by calling the book controversial. He mentions how his own daughter has autism and that nobody knows if vaccines are responsible. In fact, he expresses this last sentiment exactly five times over the course of the next three minutes, while drawing comparisons to a time when doctors didn’t object to cigarettes and would even sometimes recommend certain brands.

When Andrew Wakefield comes up, he explains that he’d written the book during the end of his legal proceedings in the UK and that until then, the legal process restrained him from telling the world what he’d learned, information, he says, “that went to the heart of why they had silenced me.” And with that, he assures his audience that if this all sounds like a conspiracy theory, that they must bear with him. Wakefield says he didn’t believe any publisher would want to touch his manuscript and that for two years none had. Then Tony Lyons immediately agreed to publish it, upon meeting Wakefield. And humble man that he is, Wakefield claims to have then innocently replied, “but you haven’t read it yet?”

It is unclear whether this is really how the former doctor who was recently stricken off the UK’s medical registry really sees himself, if this is an act, or if it’s somewhere in between. But one thing that seems very clear about this charismatic figure is that his narrative has as many plot holes as District 9…and with the same basic plot of some monolithic and sinister conglomeration of government and corporations exploiting whoever they need to get what they want as well as the willingness to do whatever is necessary to destroy whoever gets in their way.

Wakefield of course plays the part of the traditional hero in his story. After mentioning how the book’s title, a reference to the accusations against him made by the UK’s General Medical Council, had been the idea of his wife, Wakefield reads an excerpt from his book.

He begins with an ominous warning to his readers that if they don’t know any children with autism it’s a mathematical certainty that they soon will. Perhaps the greatest tragedy for Wakefield will be that Vincent Price didn’t live long enough to record the audio version of the book. And the narrator from Plan 9 From Outer Space is probably dead too. Wakefield reads of an alleged event he’d experienced in 1992 where Northern Ireland terrorists set off a bomb near him. When it came time to leave, he turned around so he’d never forget what happened that day. It was a humbling moment, he says, because he knew there was nothing he could do. Like when Peter Parker failed to prevent his uncle’s death or Bruce Wayne failed to save his parents, this seems to be the origin story, the defining moment of tragedy Wakefield has constructed for himself. That’s when he learned that with great power comes great responsibility, so that when parents approached him in 1995 about the autism issue, he was determined to make a difference like he couldn’t in 1992.

With the origin story out of the way, he proceeds to explicitly tell his readers what message they’re meant to glean from his story. This is a story about the powerful exploiting the people, he says. He says he’s been called a conspiracy theorist but the real enemy, he declares, is the pharmaceutical giants like Merck who were exposed as corrupt during the Vioxx scandal.

You see, according to Wakefield, every negative thing that’s been said about him seems to not only be false but actually true about the experts who say he’s wrong. He’s not the one who’s anti-vaccine. His message to vaccine manufacturers as well as Bill and Melinda Gates is that the best vaccination programs require willing participants (which Bill Gates apparantly is against or else why would Wakefield feel the need to say this). The key to any success, he continues, is in public confidence in scientists and policy makers that shape these programs. The key to that confidence is a safety-first vaccine agency. It apparently has nothing to do with Wakefield shouting fire in the proverbial crowded theater without first determining if his claims had any merit. Wakefield says he’s no more anti-vaccine than those who called for a recall for Toyota are anti-car. Those who are a threat to the public confidence and to safety first are the ones who are anti-vaccine. He even cites one poll that says a quarter of parents are afraid of the effects of vaccines and another study saying 54% are afraid of effects of vaccines, while a third poll he cites allegedly says 25% of some population think vaccines cause autism. Wakefield doesn’t make any mention of any role he may have played in creating this distrust.

And that’s when Wakefield passionately urged an audience of roughly seventy to eighty people to switch off their targeting computers and act on their instincts:  “To the parents I say trust your instincts over all else.” He calls for informed consent. “Get answers to your questions. If you’re not satisfied with those answers, trust your instincts.”  He says this is coming from someone who has studied this issue of vaccine safety and is aware of the limits of our knowledge. He then proceeds to explain how instinct comes from evolution and therefore it’s reliable, at which point tourists visiting the grave of Charles Darwin may have heard his corpse rolling around furiously.

This led Wakefield into talking about how the U.S. vaccine court began compensating vaccine companies in 1991 and how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has been secretly settling hearings since around then too. As I’ve previously written, this is an argument that plays on the public’s ignorance of the legal system and of what a legal settlement actually means.

This was followed by his impassioned defense of his also disgraced co-author John Walker-Smith, who Wakefield described as having up until that point, an “unimpeachable career.” Wakefield says Walker-Smith was collateral damage: “To get me, they had to get him.” And who’s this ominous “They” he refers to? For the most part, he doesn’t name names. But he does attack Dr. Paul Offit, the Lex Luther to his Superman.

“When Dr. Paul Offit said you can give children 100,000 vaccines at once safely and yet you see 4 vaccines combined in one [MMR + Chicken Pox] had to be withdrawn because it doubled the rate of seizures, it’s a bizarre position.

At this point, the audience can be heard criticizing Offit. He also criticizes autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen, who Wakefield claims dismissed autism as gastrointestinal disease out of hand years ago but has recently put out an ad that begins, “It is well known that gastrointestinal problems are common in children with autism.” The audience laughs hysterically. No one comments that, contrary to Wakefield’s insinuation, the ad is saying something completely different than his original assertion that autism is gastrointestinal disease.

But most condemned by Wakefield are the mysteriously anonymous:

“Certain colleagues said, look, we cannot be seen questioning the safety of vaccines. Let me just dissect that comment. Is that a scientifically valid comment? We cannot be seen to question the safety of these vaccines?”

And having set up this straw man, he moves into a host of false analogies of things in the past that had we not questioned their safety, would have led to great loss of life.

Then Wakefield throws everything he can at the MMR vaccine specifically. He briefly mentions uncovering some ghastly medical experiments being done to already mentally damaged children to see if it would cause brain damage. He claims that studies he looked at linked the vaccine to cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and Down syndrome. According to Wakefield, it’s merely an assumption that it’s perfectly safe to take three live viruses in the same vaccine. In another false analogy, he argues that if he went to the FDA and said he wanted to mix three drugs and sell them in the same tablet…

I’d be shown the door because the patients would die. They would drop dead AS A MATTER OF FACT! And they would demand that I show safety studies of hundreds, at least tens of thousands of individuals comparing each combination

For vaccines, no such rule exists.

Wakefield also implicates the media, stating that contrary to what Matt Lauer said in his interview with Wakefield, his Lancet findings were repeated in five separate studies.

Before finishing his talk, Wakefield does remind the audience though that nobody knows if vaccines cause autism.

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