EVER wondered what happened to Andrew Wakefield, the discredited doctor whose claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism led to a slump in immunisation rates around the world?
Well, he’s alive and well and still winning over audiences in Texas, according to this story in the New York Times magazine.
Journalist Susan Dominus paints a picture of self-deception, grandiosity and paranoia, of a once respected doctor who has gone so far out on a scientific limb that he can no longer afford to consider the possibility he might have been wrong.
It’s an impressive insight into the man and the power he continues to wield over his followers, many of them parents of children with autism who are desperate for answers.
But writing about vaccination is a fraught business, as every health reporter knows.
Journalists have come to expect attacks from those at the nuttier fringes of the anti-vaccine movement, but Dominus’ article provoked a wave of online criticism from supporters of immunisation too.
Hackles were raised by the headline’s description of Wakefield as an “autism guru” — unfortunate perhaps, but hardly Dominus’s fault since journalists don’t write their own headlines and often don’t even see the headlines until they are published.
In a thought-provoking critique, science journalist Paul Raeburn argued that the article should never have been written because the sympathetic portrayal of Wakefield would prompt some parents to refuse vaccination, leading to deaths and suffering in children.
At first, I wondered if Raeburn and I had read the same story since I thought Wakefield came across as having all the appeal of a snake oil salesman, but it’s true the article might have had a different impact on readers who knew less of the background.
Still, is it right to suggest we should not discuss some topics at all for fear of unintended consequences in less informed readers?
Dr Sue Ieraci argued in MJA InSight recently that supporters of immunisation need to avoid making extreme claims of their own and be open about efficacy and risks.
I think the same applies when it comes to writing about a character like Wakefield.
Yes, there’s a risk that such articles give him and his misguided views more oxygen, but we’d be foolish to think the whole thing will just go away if we ignore it.
Like it or not, Wakefield and his ilk have a following and the internet will always provide fertile ground for the spread of their scare-mongering.
That’s a battle that won’t go away, but good journalism, along with reasoned argument from medical experts, are among the weapons available to help us to keep fighting it.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 9 May 2011