There is currently a measles epidemic in the UK, most specifically England and Wales. By the late 1990s measles had been reduced to almost zero in England. It was no longer considered endemic, and there were but a few sporadic cases. This was undeniably the result of the MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine.
Then Andrew Wakefield happened. He published his 1998 Lancet paper laying the foundation for his claim that the MMR vaccine was associated with a form of regressive autism and GI disorder. Since then his research has been thoroughly refuted, his co-authors jumped ship after it was disclosed that Wakefield had undisclosed conflicts of interest, eventually the Lancet withdrew the paper, and Wakefield was struck off (lost his license to practice medicine) due to ethical violations. In short, Wakefield and his research were as thoroughly discredited as it is possible to be.
Yet the damage was done. A generation of children were deprived of the full protection of MMR because their parents were scared by Wakefield’s dubious claims. Vaccination rates dropped significantly, and are only now recovering.
Despite the fact that vaccine rates have returned to and even exceeded 1998 levels, measles is still on the rise. This lag is expected – measles has returned as an endemic infectious disease. It will take time to once again reduce it to insignificant levels. Also, there are still many older children who were not vaccinated over the last decade. Finally, while average vaccination rates have returned, there are still pockets of vaccine non-compliance, and they provide havens for measles to spread.
The drop in MMR uptake rates lead to a loss of herd immunity. The WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that herd immunity requires about a 95% vaccination rate. With 95% coverage an infectious agent is unlikely to spread from person to person, and so epidemics do not occur. It was largely the loss of herd immunity that is causing the recent outbreaks
One might think that Wakefield would experience even a small amount of remorse over his malfeasance, but if he does it is nowhere in evidence. After being struck off in the UK he came to the US, into the loving arms of the anti-vaccine movement here and maintains his anti-vaccine claims.
Recently he actually had the gall to blame the UK government for the recent measles outbreaks. If only they had listened to him when he tried to warn them about the risks of the MMR vaccine and approved the single measles vaccine instead. Wakefield doesn’t mention that he was developing a single measles vaccine and stood to make millions if it replaced the MMR.
Wakefield continues to claim that MMR is not safe, that it causes autism, and that the government is to blame for unfairly silencing him. He wants to use this episode to continue to spread his nonsense and fearmongering, but the UK government wisely won’t let him. So now he is desperately trying to paint himself as the victim. He is trying to insert himself back into this controversy.
Apparently he has not realized or accepted that he is now nothing more than a comic sideshow – a cautionary tale of science and ethics gone horribly wrong, and the public harm it can cause. That is his legacy. It is insufficient punishment, in my opinion, for the public harm he has caused.
Steven Novella, M.D. is the JREF's Senior Fellow and Director of the JREF’s Science-Based Medicine project.