Brian Deer wishes he uncovered a link between vaccines and autism. He wishes years of investigations for newspapers and medical journals showed the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine was to blame for the disorder.
He wishes it were true.
But what the British freelance reporter found was tainted research by the key author of a now-dismissed study responsible for feeding public distress, he said.
“Nothing would have made me prouder and more fulfilled in my life than to have discovered that vaccines cause autism,” Deer said. “Because if that was true, then there would be something really remarkable that could be done for children.”
Instead, the report’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, received payoffs from lawyers who were suing vaccine companies and tweaked the results of the 1998 Lancet study that has since been retracted.
Deer and Wakefield visited La Crosse on Thursday for separate presentations.
Deer spoke at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Away from the university, at Myrick Park, Wakefield addressed a crowd of supporters.
It was Deer’s reporting, beginning with a 2004 story in the Sunday Times of London, that eventually uncovered serious problems with Wakefield’s work.
What started with a routine assignment became an investigation that continued, on and off, for seven years.
“I thought it would last three weeks, and that was in 2004,” Deer said Thursday in an appearance on Wisconsin Public Radio’s Newsmakers.
Instead, he stumbled onto a story that would expose conflicts of interest and questionable research of a study fueling misplaced concern over the MMR vaccine and autism.
“(Wakefield) got himself media coverage saying this and triggered widespread public concern among parents,” Deer said.
Deer’s investigations show Wakefield received the equivalent of about $750,000 from lawyers who were representing families suing vaccine companies. Instead of using random samples, Wakefield used those same families in the Lancet report.
Deer’s reporting also showed that the study was altered and tweaked when it didn’t mesh with Wakefield’s hypothesis.
Wakefield was accused of fraud, lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom and moved to Texas. He knows the effect Deer’s stories have had on his reputation — earlier this year he filed a failed defamation lawsuit against the journalist.
“It’s been trashed, I suppose,” Wakefield said. “I’ve got to live with that. That doesn’t matter.”
He came to La Crosse at the request of concerned parents, upset about Deer’s presentation at the university, Wakefield said.
“There needs to be the counter argument,” he said.
Wakefield continues to find support from parents.
Tori Weissenberger isn’t sure what caused her 7-year-old son’s autism, but she’s still afraid what she calls an “obvious correlation” between vaccines and harmful effects.
Now, the 35-year-old La Crosse resident won’t allow vaccinations for her children unless they’re necessary — and she would prefer to spread them out.
“They’ve become so healthy, we don’t feel the need to expose them further,” Weissenberger said.
Presenting a stoic figure in the windy autumn afternoon at Myrick, Wakefield called Deer a “Murdoch” journalist.
“We are now on the offense,” Wakefield said.
He accused Deer of deception and incompetence, and wondered at the public acceptance of Deer’s reporting.
“This is a man who the medical profession, public health, the pharmaceutical industry, the world health organization and, indeed, this university across the road appear to have invested their trust and belief,” Wakefield said.
The Centers for Disease Control and the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies reject any relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.
“I wish to make it clear now that there is no debate,” said Bernadette Taylor, associate professor of microbiology at UW-L. “This university did not invite a debate on that issue.”
Wakefield still insists on a link between MMR and autism. He still defends the 1998 Lancet report. He still denies the hefty sums he received from lawyers presented a conflict of interest, saying the legal work was separate from his study.
Measles was eliminated from the United States in 2000, and about 60 cases are reported each year — except for 2011, according to the CDC. Last year, the number of reported measles cases jumped to 222.
Still, Wakefield cautions against over vaccination.
“The vaccine schedule in this country is far too onerous, far too aggressive,” Wakefield said. “And I do believe that it is associated with the cause of autism, yes.”