Once upon a time, there lived in England a man called Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield was born in Eton, in Berkshire, in 1957, and he would grow up to be a doctor. A gastroenterologist and a medical researcher, to be precise. And also, as history would eventually show, a colossal fucking cockwomble. A master of fraudulent twattery. A Jedi of irresponsible, unethical medicine.
In 1998, Wakefield wrote a research paper that became ground zero for a cataclysmic explosion of global stupidity, the aftershocks of which are still being felt today. In this paper, he claimed to have found evidence of a link between the administration of the polyvalent measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of colitis and autism in children. The study was published in the much-respected medical journal, The Lancet, and the part about autism was seized on by the media. International alarm about government mandated administration of MMR vaccines to children followed, and public confidence in the vaccine was shaken. The storm of attention was encouraged and stoked by Wakefield, who revealed himself to be an opportunistic shit-totem by being all too happy to promote his findings wherever he could. But it wasn’t long before things took a turn.
It would come to light a few years later that Wakefield’s study was, according to the rest of the scientific community, complete and utter bollocks. The study had been done using a sample size of just twelve children, and as time went on it became apparent that no other researchers were able to replicate his findings—a crucial element of the peer-reviewed scientific process. The English National Health Service and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Cochrane Library carried out epidemiological studies on a grand scale, and no matter how hard they tried, they could not get the same results or find the same links that Wakefield did. And there was a simple reason for that. It turned out that Andrew Wakefield was a titanic fraud merchant, who failed to disclose that a few years before the study was published he had been funded by a group hoping to find a causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children. This conflict of interest was exposed in 2004 by journalist Brian Deer and it led to most of the paper’s co-authors withdrawing their support of the findings. A pretty devastating blow to the facade of veracity of any study.
But wait! There’s more! With Andrew Wakefield the turd onion there are always more layers, and in 2010 The Lancet pulled his study completely after allegations of data falsification. At the same time, the UK’s General Medical Council completed an investigation into Wakefield that found that not only was he guilty of undeclared conflicts of interest, but that he had also been conducting unnecessary invasive procedures on children. Colonoscopies, lumbar punctures, that kinda thing. And that he had been doing all this shit without the 100 percent necessary ethical approval of a review board. As a result, Andrew Wakefield would be charged with four counts of dishonesty and twelve counts of abuse of developmentally delayed children. The Lancet would declare his paper ‘utterly false’ and Wakefield would be swiftly struck off the UK medical register and barred from practicing medicine in the country. On top of all that, in 2011, Brian Deer, the journalist who originally exposed Wakefield published a story that described Wakefield’s work as an elaborate fraud designed to function as a springboard for a venture that would profit from the MMR scare and new medical tests that would follow as well as ‘litigation driven testing’. Disgraced, Wakefield turned tail and fled across the water, to Texas, his reputation ruined but his fabricated findings very much alive in the dark recesses of popular consciousness.
Andrew Wakefield’s cynical and opportunistic money grab would have profound implications, especially in his adopted home of the United States. His anti-vaccination stance would become a minor cause célèbre among a depressingly sizeable segment of American celebrities, who would then continue to propagate his thoroughly debunked findings as if they were some sort of revolutionary truth. Ignoring the mountain of easily available evidence against their new belief would become a testament to the power of self-delusion. There would be fightback from more enlightened/less gullible corners, but nevertheless, the public would continue to eat this up, with around 10 percent of the US population confessing some suspicion of vaccination programmes, and President Donald Trump displaying some affinity with movement by inviting Wakefield himself to his Inauguration Ball, as well as meeting with known anti-vaxxers like Robert Kennedy Jr. You know what they say: ‘Snake oil salesmen of a feather…’
The most recent and incredibly annoying twist to this tale is the apparent spread of the anti-vaccination movements to those purest of angels: Dogs. No, there aren’t any actual dogs themselves out there claiming that MMR causes autism—or at least no real ones, I haven’t seen Isle of Dogs yet. This is still the stupidity of people we’re talking about. The British Veterinary Association had to issue a warning the other day, saying:
We are aware of an increase in anti-vaccination pet owners in the US who have voiced concerns that vaccinations may lead to their dogs developing autism-like behaviour. But there is currently no scientific evidence to suggest autism in dogs or a link between vaccination and autism. All medicines have potential side effects but in the case of vaccines these are rare and the benefits of vaccination in protecting against disease far outweigh the potential for an adverse reaction.
According to the report linked above, Lisa Tenzin-Dolma, founder of the International School for Canine Psychology and Behaviour, has said of the matter:
We don’t have scientific evidence to back claims of canine autism, however, we have seen anecdotal evidence of dogs having a marked change in their behaviour (‘canine dysfunctional behaviour’). Symptoms are things like increased aggression or dogs becoming more fearful. This could be down to any number of causes: the loss of a carer or the arrival of another dog. Some people link the changes to thyroid issues, but it is all down to individual circumstances.
In other words: ‘Canine autism’ is not a thing, and history seems to be repeating itself in that we have an attention-hungry and irresponsible media giving a platform to dangerous hogwash. The breakfast show Good Morning Britain (the one that Piers Morgan landed in after you volleyed his hate-spouting arseface back across the Atlantic at us), for example, has come under fire for tweeting this:
We're looking to speak to pet owners who haven't given their pets vaccinations because they're concerned about side effects - as well as people who have done so and now believe their pet has canine autism as a result.— Good Morning Britain (@GMB) April 23, 2018
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According to The Independent:
The National Autistic Society (NAS) said it had contacted the show directly with its concerns about such a high profile platform for claims that there a link between vaccines and autism, which have been completely discredited in humans.
“As an autistic individual I was deeply offended,” said Alexandra Forshaw, 44, who works as a software developer and is a board member Autistic Inclusive Meets. “In a single tweet they managed to perpetuate the myth of a link between autism and vaccination, and the myth that autism is something that can be contracted.
“But even more than the harm this does to public health, the comparison between autistic people and poorly-trained pet dogs is immensely insulting and hurtful.”
Good Morning Britain might well have a predictable defence ready for giving space to this view. We’ve seen it before. It’s the fallacy of ‘balanced debate’. Giving ‘both sides’ a fair shot. This is incredibly dangerous, and stupid, and anyone advocating for it in cases like this should be plunged repeatedly into a lake to see if they float and are therefore a witch.
Some things are not worthy of debate, and to give a platform to those espousing nonsense is flat-out wrong. There is only so much airspace out there, so many column inches, and information has consequences. Those who high-mindedly claim that they are just practicing fair reporting by giving a stage to charlatans or fools are complicit in retarding the all-too fragile march of human progress, and they should be censured appropriately. It is not ‘fair reporting’ to give validity to anti-vaxxers, just as it would not be ‘fair’ to give it to someone claiming that homeopathy is a credible science. Or that the Sun goes round the Earth. Or that man made climate change isn’t a thing. Or that Chris Evans is not the one and only Best Chris.
Vaccinate your children, folks.
Vaccinate your dogs too.
(Header photo courtesy of Getty Images)