Part 21: The Wakefield Legacy

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all coping okay with the lockdown and various effects of the pandemic. Am I coping with it? I don’t know. These are difficult times, and the figures being quoted for infection rates and deaths are deeply worrying. I get stressed about it, and find the whole thing terrifying. No one wants to feel terrified, of course, but part of me feels it’s safer to be terrified than not. If I’m this worried, this frightened, hopefully I won’t do some of the stupid things I’m seeing other people do as they show utter disregard for the safety of themselves and others.

Friday morning, I took a walk up to the local supermarket to buy some essential food. It had to be a walk, as we are pretty much snowed in, and I couldn’t handle clearing the snow from the drive while still recovering from the back problem that saw me hospitalised recently. Anyway, in the busy supermarket there was no attempt by anyone to maintain social distancing, and various people were not wearing their masks properly – for example, leaving their noses uncovered. The environment in that store would have been enough to set my anxiety whirring even if there was no pandemic. But the casual, careless stupidity of people shopping there boggled my mind, and I couldn’t get out quick enough.

Earlier in the week, I decided to stop taking my daily walk over to Graves Park in Sheffield during my one-week holiday from the office. The reason was the sheer volume of covidiots crowding the narrow paths of the park, not socially distancing, not wearing masks, and making it difficult for sensible people to get around.

Why is it that people are still not taking the pandemic seriously? Global deaths from Covid-19 have topped 2 million, and the UK is reporting well in excess of a thousand deaths per day right now. What is so difficult about maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask when faced with these horrifying statistics? There is not one simple answer to this, as many different factors are in play. But in today’s blog, I’m just going to talk about one of those factors; one that is closely related to autism issues: The legacy of Andrew Wakefield.

Before I get onto Wakefield, I want to share something upbeat. I have, as promised, commenced the second draft of my novel-in-progress, Aberrations. So far, I have worked through the first seven chapters with a fine-tooth comb, along with making some changes in one or two later chapters to smooth out continuity. There are another fifty chapters to review. I’m enjoying it, and can’t wait for the autumn when I intend to have the book ready to publish.

I’m what is known as an independent writer. When people first find out I’m a writer, and that I’ve published books, they almost always assume that I am somewhat rich, and somewhat famous. Often, it pains me to see the disappointment on their faces when I explain, no, I’m about as far from rich as it’s possible to be, and not even remotely famous. I don’t have a publisher, or an agent. I self-publish my books using Amazon’s platform. I have no marketing budget, and make effectively zero money from writing. In truth, when you factor in the cost of a laptop and word-processing software, I have so far made a financial loss from writing. So why do I do it? Because I love writing, and love telling my stories my way with no editorial interference. Similarly, I make no money from this blog, although I have just started trialling having a few adverts on here, as you’ll be able to see. I hope you don’t mind them.

I make my living working in a low-tier desk job for a large, well-known, not-for-profit healthcare organisation, in which I am a tiny cog, doing my bit to help people. This means I’m classed as a key worker, don’t get furloughed, and work through the pandemic. The money isn’t great, but there’s a hell of a lot of job satisfaction that comes with it. I like my job a lot.

If you like my writing, whether it’s my fiction or what I’m trying to do for autism awareness, please feel free to “buy me a coffee”, by clicking the link below.

Anti-Vaxx: Covid-19 Apathy, Denialism, and the Legacy of Andrew Wakefield

On Wednesday 13th January 2021, police in San Francisco’s Marina area attended an apartment to carry out a wellbeing check on a child, Pierce O’Loughlin. They found the child, and his father Stephen, dead from gunshot wounds. It appeared the father had killed his son before turning the gun on himself.

There had been problems in the family; the parents were separated, and had been fighting over custody, with a major sticking point being the two parents’ differing views on getting 9-year-old Pierce vaccinated. The father was an anti-vaxxer, and had resisted getting Pierce his normal childhood vaccinations. Pierce got his injections on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, his father killed him, before taking his own life.

Anti-vaxx sentiments have destroyed this family. Certainly,= it seems Stephen O’Loughlin had mental health issues, but the stimulus in this tragedy was anti-vaxx conspiracy theories that had consumed him.

The anti-vaxx movement is loud and aggressive. It hard to imagine anything more damaging to the health of the global population than the idea that vaccines are harmful gathering pace during a terrible global pandemic.

Let’s have a quick recap on who Andrew Wakefield is, and what he did.

Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor who has since been struck off the medical register, was heavily involved in a scandalous fraud that falsely claimed autism was caused by the MMR vaccine. In fact Wakefield was the face of, and the driving force behind, these ridiculous claims.

The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was first licenced for use back in 1971. Previous to that, measles would kill more than two-and-a-half million people every year, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. These days, thanks to a massive worldwide vaccination program, global deaths from measles are well under two hundred thousand annually. This is a breathtaking achievement in healthcare. Those kinds of figures tell you just how amazing vaccines are.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield and a number of co-authors published an article in the highly respected medical journal, The Lancet, which contained a somewhat vague assertion that certain gastrointestinal problems co-morbid with autism could be related to the MMR vaccine. The study this was based on was tiny; just 12 autistic children were used. As was later revealed, the science here was deeply flawed, and there was fraud at play. But due to poor newspaper editorial decisions, Wakefield’s voracious appetite for publicity, and a pack of story-hungry media outlets desperate for a scandal, soon it entered the public consciousness that the MMR vaccine caused autism. It didn’t seem to matter that stronger, more rigorous science utterly contradicted this claim. The genie was out, and the story exploded. Autism became a red-hot subject in news and the media generally, and Wakefield was its poster boy.

Wakefield pursued the publicity relentlessly, and looking back, it’s hard to work out why more people weren’t asking, What’s in it for him? It turned out the answer to this question was plenty of money.

Thanks to some intrepid work from Sunday Times journalist Brian Deer, some disturbing facts emerged, including that Wakefield had received sizeable payments from third parties looking to find evidence they could use to concoct money-spinning lawsuits against vaccine manufacturers. Through his claims about the MMR vaccine, Wakefield had effectively created a non-existent medical condition, and it emerged he had devised tests for this condition, which he could have sold for tens of millions of pounds. Brian Deer exposed serious malpractice by Wakefield, and the game was up. The Lancet withdrew the original article, which the co-authors had now also distanced themselves from. The General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of professional misconduct, and he was struck off.

However, the damage had been done, and as a result vaccination rates dropped through the floor as frightened parents decided they didn’t want their kids to catch autism from the MMR vaccine. So thanks to the fear and confusion sown by Wakefield through his odious claims, measles infection rates in the UK and Europe rocketed by the thousands, and children died unnecessarily from a very preventable disease.

Despite all the evidence against Wakefield, the decision of the GMC, and the overwhelming science and medical evidence in favor of the MMR vaccine, even today some people still believe the vaccine causes autism. Like I said, the genie was out, and the damage was done.

Wakefield’s fraudulent MMR vaccine scandal was not the start of the anti-vaxxer movement, but it was certainly an ignition point. Now, twenty-three years after the article in The Lancet, the anti-vaxx movement is in full swing, and about to cause havoc in the effort to curb the Covid-19 pandemic.

The legacy of Andrew Wakefield is not simply that he misinformed the world about both autism and the MMR vaccine. He became, and still is, a figurehead for the anti-vaxx movement, and has successfully undermined public confidence in all medical science and the pharmaceutical industry among a significant section of the world’s population. The anti-vaxx movement is based on a conspiracy theory that Big Pharma want to hurts us. Big Pharma wants to keep us sick, so we keep paying for medicines that never quite get us well enough, so we keep having to buy those medicines again and again. These conspiracy theorists believe cures for cancer, AIDS and so on already exist, but it wouldn’t be profitable for Big Pharma to let us have them*. Better to keep us sick and needy.

Books have been written about why conspiracy theorists behave and think the way they they do, and there’s only so much I can do in one blog post. Suffice it to say for now that the notion you could co-ordinate the millions of people necessary to make such a conspiracy actually work is ridiculous. Plus, there are many, many ways anyone can go and check the scientific facts for themselves. Unless, of course, you believe that all the internet search engines’ employees, and all the scientists, and all the doctors, in every single lab around the world, are all in on the conspiracy that would be keeping their loved ones sick for Big Pharma. If you believe that, I cannot help you.

Covid-19 is killing us. Scientists have worked damned hard retooling their existing vaccine work, unpicking Covid-19, and coming up with new vaccines in record-breaking time. Make no mistake, these people are heroes. But a lot of their work is being undermined by covidiot anti-vaxx conspiracy theorists claiming that the vaccine will be used by governments or Big Pharma as mind control, or to usher in the Anti-Christ, or to insert tracking microchips into your body, or a whole host of other madness. And many of these anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists will have beliefs that can be traced directly back to the greed and corruption of one Andrew Wakefield who tried to make himself a lot of money by exploiting autistic people.

Don’t be a covidiot anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist. When your turn comes, get vaccinated. Until then, stay at home as much as you can, wear a mask when you must go out, maintain social distancing, and wash your hands obsessively.

Thank you for reading. Stay safe, and I’ll see you next week.

*No doubt the anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists reading this will accuse me of being a shill in the pockets of Big Pharma. Actually, I am no fan of the pharmaceutical industry, which can and does get things badly wrong. None of that should detract, though, from the brilliant work done by doctors, scientists and researchers around the world, to come up with the vaccines and drugs that save lives in their millions. For a balanced, critical view of the pharmaceutical industry, I would direct you to Ben Goldacre’s brilliant book, Bad Pharma.

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