Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s story is a classic example of bad incentives.

Back in 1998, he published a landmark study that linked children’s vaccines to autism. The study was of 12 children and was considered groundbreaking. It sparked a huge drop in the use of childhood vaccinations. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy have for years endorsed this idea. McCarthy has served as a spokesperson for autism organizations and even written books. I’d have to read more on the matter, but it is unclear if even her own kid has autism, but I won’t go there.

Dr. Wakefield’s study was considered big enough to make headlines, and baby crazy parents all other the modern world immediately stopped doing vaccinations. Naturally, there was an increase in measles (which can be fatal) and cholera due to the reduced use of vaccines. Since that study came out, researchers around the world have tried to repeat the results of the study and could not.

Now we know why.  Wakefield is a fraud.

Wakefield allegedly altered the study’s results to make them fit the theory. Why would someone do that? Fame? A Nobel Prize? Money? Money.

As it turns out,a law firm paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars. An in depth review of the study showed a number of the 12 children were already showing signs of autism before they even got vaccinations. What was the law firm’s angle? They planned to sue vaccination companies.

I’m no protector of corporations, but it is simply awful to commission research with the intention to sue based on the results. And for any research to actually do the research and not disclose the conflict, well they should be thrown in jail.

Wakefield has done irreperable harm to the medical community. Most people that avoided vaccinating their children are not going to stop believing it now. McCarthy is unlikely to feel any different. As much as I hate to say this, she’s made a career out of this study.

But how do we prevent this in the future? Can we stop people from taking a headline about a tiny study and converting it into a religion? No. But we can take ownership of our own education. It’s been well-documented that this study’s results could not be replicated. I doubt their are many doctors out there that actually recommended against vaccines based on the study either.

In other words, we can’t prevent this in the future. People are stupid and will believe anything without veryfiying it themselves. I’m not saying to blindly trust your doctor, but use a combination of self-education and physician recommendations.

Wakefield’s incentives were not aligned at all to serve the medical community, or humanity. But he could have easily been ignored if people educated themselves, instead of following a couple of headlines and a celebrity endorsement of bad science.

Photo: eyeliam

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