Tag Archives: Paul Offit

MMR, Autism and Wakefield: Unringing the Bell

Dr. Paul A. Offit/photo by Mitchel Zoler

On February 14, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an essay by Dr. Paul A. Offit, pediatric infectious diseases specialist and childhood vaccine champion, with his take on recent developments in the Dr. Andrew Wakefield/autism/measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine fiasco. Dr. Offit, chief of infectious diseases at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has had a special interest in the spurious links between childhood vaccinations and autism, and he wrote a 2008 book on the subject.

On February 2, the editors of The Lancet retracted Dr. Wakefield’s controversial and ultimately fraudulent 1998 report that purported to document a causal link between administration of the MMR vaccine to children and their quick development of autism. Dr. Offit’s essay cited other scandalous events linked to the infamous paper, such as reporting by a British journalist that showed Dr. Wakefield received more than $750,000 from a personal-injury lawyer who planned to file lawsuits based on the autism links Dr. Wakefield reported in The Lancet.

Dr. Offit also cited some of the unfortunate consequences of Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 paper: “Wakefield’s belief that MMR caused autism has morphed into other strongly held beliefs: thimerosal…was responsible; or other vaccine ingredients, or too many vaccines given too soon.”

These cumulative vaccine slanders “had their effect,” Dr. Offit continued. “During the last few years, outbreaks of whooping cough in the United States have increased, in some instances mimicking epidemics seen in the pre-vaccine era. And, in 2009, three children in Philadelphia died from meningitis caused by” the Hemophilus influenzae type b bacterium, “which could have been safely and easily prevented” by following U.S. vaccine guidelines.

Even though The Lancet officially eradicated Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 report from the medical literature, it will be hard “to unring the bell,” Dr. Offit said in his essay yesterday. It is hard “to reassure people once you’ve scared them;” The Lancet’s retraction “will do nothing to restore the lives of children lost in this sad, tragic episode.”

—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)

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Filed under Drug And Device Safety, Family Medicine, IMNG, Infectious Diseases, Pediatrics, Practice Trends, Primary care

Fair and Balanced News: Too Much of a Good Thing

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Mareklug (creative commons)

Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Mareklug (creative commons)

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases’ 12th Annual Conference on Vaccine Research, Baltimore, Maryland

I often hide my name badge at meetings if it proclaims my status as media. This is almost always to ward off PR flacks. Today, I slunk out of an afternoon session of the NFID’s vaccine research meeting hiding my badge because I was just plain embarrassed.

As part of a talk on autism NOT being linked to vaccinations, Dr. Paul A. Offit took the media to task for giving equal time and weight to the other side, i.e. Jenny McCarthy and the vaccines-gave-my-kid-autism lobby. Dr. Offit, who is the head of the Infectious Diseases section at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, cited the late Tim Russert’s “Meet the Press’”segment, which gave equal time to Dr. Harvey Fineberg, head of the Institute of Medicine, and former Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and David Kirby, a journalist who wrote a book about the link betweent autism and the MMR vaccine.  [Full disclosure: Dr. Offit is the author of the book Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure]  His point was not whether it was a fair fight but that it shouldn’t have been a fight at all, given the preponderance of evidence against a link.

I admit that I slunk lower in my seat to hide the day-glow green ribbon shouting “PRESS”.  I’d like to say by way of disclaimer that there is a huge difference between those of us who write for physicians and those who write for the lay public.  I have a chemistry degree for crying out loud.  Still, I felt guilty by association.

I knew immediately where the disconnect is.  As a journalism student, it was drummed into my head that there are TWO sides to every story and you are doing your readers a disservice by not including both in your story.  No one ever said anything about evaluating the relative weight to give to those two sides. 

Admittedly, distraught parents of autistic children make for very compelling reading and viewing.  They do not, however, offset the eons of medical and scientific training and the mountains of data that tell us that vaccines do not cause autism.  The scientists—because they are scientists and can’t say with statistical absolute certainty that vaccines do not cause autism—do not phrase it this way but it’s what the evidence amounts to. 

And don’t even get me (or Dr. Offit) started on the Oprah episode with Ms. McCarthy…

For an excellent discussion of the bad science involved in the autism vs. vaccines pseudocontroversy, see surgical oncologist Dr. David Gorski’s blog post on Science-Based Medicine.

—Kerri Wachter (@knwachter)

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Filed under Infectious Diseases, Pediatrics, Psychiatry