Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Truth, Lies, Vaccines and Autism

 A true tragedy should evoke pity and fear on the part of the audience.

So said Aristotle more than two thousand years ago. Fear and pity create emotional cleansing (catharsis), he said, and though he couldn’t possibly know it, they sell newspapers, too. If you’re going to give the public bad news, play it up. Make sure they feel pity, and give them something to fear.

That’s why the recently re-emerged scandal about the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and its (non) link to autism continues to make headlines around the world. The story, going back to 1998 when Dr. Andrew Wakefield announced a link between the two, has created an enormous amount of press. Readers are given grieving parents of children with autism to feel sorry for as well as fear and loathing of vaccines. Bingo. News desk editors found a goldmine with this story, and they’ve been playing the Pity and Fear Card ever since.

Unfortunately, in the wake of selling newspapers and giving the public what it craves, a lot of misinformation has traded hands.

Then Brian Deer came along. He’s an investigative news reporter for the London Sunday Times newspaper. On a routine assignment for the paper seven years ago, Deer was asked to follow-up on a story about Dr. Wakefield.

In the course of his research since 2004, Deer discovered that Wakefield had a major conflict of interest when he presented his research. Contrary to the “dispassionate scientist” he represented himself as, Wakefield was paid $750,000 by lawyers representing scientists developing an alternative vaccine to replace MMR. He was thereafter paid on an ongoing basis to keep the story brewing.

Wakefield’s data was found to be skewed and manipulated. The children studied didn’t necessarily have autism nor did they develop problems after the vaccine was given. He selected and recruited cases. He didn’t report symptoms correctly He changed diagnoses.

After seven years of ongoing study and court cases, judges allowed Deer and a medical panel to review the medical charts of children cited in Wakefield’s study. Public hearings were held for 217 days. The verdict. Autism? No. Within 12 days of receiving the vaccine? No.

Wakefield has been found guilty of three dozen charges of fraud, four of dishonesty, and twelve involving the abuse of developmentally disabled children. His medical license was revoked in 2010 and the medical journals he was originally published in – Lancet and the British Medical Journal – have called his research findings an “elaborate fraud.” Did they think he may have made a mistake in his research? Might he merely be incompetent? “No,” they said. He intended to mislead.

I heard Deer at the Ryerson School of Journalism today. Speaking to budding journalists, he emphasized the role newspapers played in the scandal by courting an audience through fear and pity. Front page photographs of teary-eyed mothers holding their disabled children sell newspapers. Courting fears about vaccines sell newspapers, too. So much so, an epidemic of mumps erupted in England in 2008 based on the reduced numbers of children being vaccinated.

But most importantly, Deer cited the shabby and oftentimes complete lack of homework from journalists covering the story.

In 2004, ten of the thirteen doctors who originally reviewed Wakefield’s studies withdrew their claims that the study was valid. Instead of looking closely at their evidence or how their original review of Wakefield’s data had been faulty, the headlines were asking “Is Wakefield being grievously smeared and abused?" Was there a conspiracy to debunk him? Was he a victim of Big Pharma or other dark forces? Was he David to their Goliath?

Deer is sympathetic to the strong (and large) lobby of parents who have children with autism who see Wakefield as a brave hero who dared to stand up and take on the medical establishment, only, in the end, to be crushed by them.

No amount of scientific data or ‘expert opinion’ is going to change minds about Wakefield or connection between the vaccine and autism. People cling to their conspiracy theories, and it’s understandable. Governments perpetrate conspiracies. Corporations, including Big Pharma have themselves created false data. Experts lie.

That’s why we need good, old-fashioned slogging journalists like Brian Deer. But in the day and age of newspapers with reduced budgets, they can’t afford to pay people like Brian to do the tedious and prolonged investigations required to get to the bottom of stories like this. And not everyone knows how to ask the right questions.

Deer worries about this, too, and believes the internet may feed into the problem. “This story reminded me of the HIV doesn’t cause AIDS campaign.  The internet can be a superb “crank magnet” and source of misinformation. It can bring people together who are nasty, not well-meaning or have axes to grind. It becomes a vortex of dissent and confusion.” Fears can be kept alive in this new environment, he says, because people pass themselves off as experts. “In previous decades, people could be abusive in their own communities. Now they can go online and fan flames internationally. They draw people together and galvanize them in a cause.”

We mustn’t underestimate the need for solid, fact-finding journalism, especially in stories that make us feel pity and fear. If we don’t demand it, lazy or sensation-seeking journalists are just adding to the pool of people, like Wakefield, who know how easy it is to manipulate us with stories about good and evil.

The world is so much less complex when we know who’s good and who’s bad. That’s why we need more people like Brian Deer when the two are hard to tell apart.

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