Sex, Lies, and Vaccinations

Author: Jonathan Sackier
The sex in the title is included (a) to get your attention and (b) because without it one does not have children. And they are the focus of this rant. The lies and vaccination parts will become apparent.

Much of the writing on this site focuses on life science corporate wrongdoing, whether by acts of omission or commission. But what of my colleagues? What happens when a doctor does wrong? Medical practice is an imperfect canvas, a collage of patchy data and artistically applied practical, real life experiences. We get it wrong on occasion, but such errors are not the result of ill-intention. I am not referring to what is deemed wrong by those staunch soldiers of virtue, the malpractice attorneys.  Very often good doctors – and their malpractice carriers – are persecuted for a bad outcome that is the result of nature of the disease or just plum bad luck. And neither am I referring to downright incompetence – amputating the wrong limb or administering the incorrect dose. I am talking about cold-blooded deception driven by greed, personal pride or political belief. The enzyme that has prompted this tirade is the recent exposure of Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent publication that drove mothers and fathers to believe that vaccinating their offspring against measles, mumps or rubella (MMR) might cause autism.

For those not familiar with the case, in 1998 Wakefield published a “scientific article” in the esteemed journal Lancet that led to the conclusion that there was a causal relationship between the MMR vaccination and autism. It later became apparent that the children studied were not as represented in his paper and the entire data set was falsified. Although some of his co-authors renounced the work and Lancet later withdrew the paper, the damage was done. Patient advocacy groups cried foul, celebrities jumped on the bandwagon and, of course, attorneys saw a brand new Porsche on offer.

Whatever inspired Wakefield is a mystery to me – his right to practice medicine in the UK was revoked by the General Medical Council and he now lives in the US maintaining that he is the victim of some form of conspiracy. He was accused of a conflict of interest for failing to disclose that not only were payments made to his hospital by the attorneys representing parents of autistic children suing the vaccine manufacturer, but that he personally stood to make very large sums of money.

Regardless of any financial elements to this sad case, the fact remains that as a direct and proximate cause of his actions, countless pain and suffering was caused to children and their parents agonizing over decisions they made. And children died. Read that sentence again and think about the implications. We are not talking about someone who misinterpreted data, we are not suggesting an honest mistake was made, heaven forbid, medicine is littered with wrong turns. We are talking about someone who in calculated manner committed what has been called “an elaborate fraud.” That is rather like saying the pope has some religious tendencies. These actions led to deaths.  Preventable, avoidable deaths. And what is being done about it? Nothing.

Other examples abound, the case of Dr. John Darsee of Harvard perhaps being the best known. But again I ask, what are the consequences? I have had the joy of seeing the results of my research published over the years and once tried to explain the process to a friend who works in the hotel business. “So how does this publishing lark work, Jonny?” So I responded “ I apply for a grant based on a hypothesis, carry out the work, write it up, pay my assistant a bonus to type it, pay for some illustrations and once accepted for publication, I pay the journal for reprints and then send them out to colleagues who request one.” He then asked “but what do you get paid to do this, it must cost a lot of money?” And I told him – those of us who spend any time on academic pursuits do so because we believe, truly believe that we have something useful to add to the body of medical knowledge and want to make a difference.  To usurp that for tawdry reasons leaves a very bitter taste in my mouth, especially when I see that the perpetrator is not punished appropriately. We all suffer as a result.

I have taught a course on utilizing the medical literature for my colleagues in the life science industry and am saddened that the strict compliance rules that apply to industry do not seem to have found a parallel in medical practice. While one cannot mandate that people will be honest and decent, the least we can do is mete out swift retribution to those who spoil the sandlot.

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