Search Wikipedia for Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s name and you’ll find a very long and very unflattering article claiming his research to be fraudulent and himself disbarred and disgraced. An informal social media survey might turn up comments of how he is that “anti-vaccine doctor” and responsible for the climate of vaccine mistrust. I’m quite ashamed to admit that up until about six months ago I would probably have believed the rumors, I would have trusted Wikipedia. All that changed last November when I heard Dr. Wakefield’s keynote address for the 2013 Wise Traditions Conference of the Weston A Price Foundation in Atlanta, GA. If an international organization with such a diverse membership devoted to finding the truth behind controversial research can honor Wakefield with their Integrity In Science Award and invite him to speak at their annual banquet, there must be more to his story than you can read in Wikipedia.
This is where the DAIR Foundation comes in. It was late February when I received a text message from a doctor friend asking if I’d help her with a special project; she wanted to have a dinner party for Dr. Andrew Wakefield. The DAIR Foundation would partner with our local planning committee to help our fundraiser dinner to succeed. DAIR is a legal foundation much like HSLDA or FTCLDF in that they provide representation and counsel to researchers and doctors who are persecuted by media, government or industry special interests. Our local team consisted of Dr. Maggie Ruiz-Paedae, her huband and her daughter, and a handful of others like myself who were picked by Maggie who is a certified GAPS practitioner and is very passionate about helping people, especially children.
Each Tuesday evening our team would meet via conference call. Dawn Loughborough was the DAIR Foundation coordinator who facilitated our calls. Dr. Wakefield himself was also on most of the calls which was a fabulous opportunity for me to learn more about him, figure out just what kind of person he was, and hear the truth of what happened to cause the whole scandal in the first place.
In a nutshell Dr. Wakefield and his supervisor, Dr. John Walker-Smith, wrote a research paper which was published in The Lancet in 1998 proposing a link between the MMR vaccine, autism and bowel disease. Dr. Wakefield had, and still has, a passionate interest in helping children who are in pain to get better. In the course of his research he interviewed the mothers of autistic children who told him that their children frequently exhibited behaviors that pointed toward great gastrointestinal distress. Upon examining these children he found they had inflamed guts, many with painful angry lesions. He discovered these inflammatory bowel issues were worsened when the children received the MMR vaccine. Knowing it would be controversial Drs. Wakefield and Walker-Smith recommended that parents stop using the combined MMR and instead have those vaccines, for measles, mumps and rubella, be given separately. At the time the idea that autistic children had digestive disorders was a brand new thing. At the time autism was still considered psychological and treated with psychotropic drugs, many children were heavily sedated or institutionalized. In the years since Dr. Wakefield made this discovery many other researchers around the world have also discovered bowel diseases in autistic children, and the dietary approach to treating autism has come to be well accepted in many medical circles, with the GF/CF diet being the most mainstream. Quoting from the controversial research paper they said, “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.”
At the time these findings were first published the separate vaccines were still available in the UK. Within six months, however, the British government withdrew permission for single vaccines to be imported leaving the combined MMR as the only available option. Parents had to use it or just not vaccinate. Instead of recognizing the lack of options for vaccinations, the British media went after the doctors who had raised the flags in the first place. The ensuing battle – Dawn Loughborough describes it as a “media mugging” – ended with the Lancet withdrawing the research paper and both doctors losing their license to practice. After a lengthy court battle Dr. Walker-Smith was able to sue the High Court in Britain and was completely exonerated and fully restored in his medical practice. However Dr. Wakefield’s legal battles proved too expensive at the time. He left Britain and moved to the United States. He has also written 19 more peer-reviewed papers on autism, bowel disease and vaccines.
Brian Deer, the journalist who first made the complaint against Dr. Wakefield claiming conflict of interest and misconduct, is also the same person who first broke the news story in the UK. He continues to promote the idea of Dr. Wakefield’s research being fraudulent. The legal battle began in a Texas courtroom in 2012. It is still playing out which is why the DAIR Foundation has stepped in to help with this very expensive ordeal.
Our hope, and the reason behind the fundraiser dinner and all the conference calls, is that Dr. Wakefield can clear his name once and for all and regain the respect he so much deserves. My impressions of this man, after spending hours on conference calls, having face-to-face conversations during the fundraiser event, and listening to his presentations both at Wise Traditions and at the DAIR event, is that this doctor is fully committed to the children and their parents and finding real solutions for autism. His compassion for these children, most of whom cannot speak for themselves, runs deep to the point of tears when he speaks of the ones who have suffered and died due to misdiagnosis and wrong treatment. His own trials, the loss of his career and his medical license, all of the hateful words people have said about him – all of this means little if, in the end, he can make a difference in the lives of these children; if he can ease their suffering and find a cure.
If you’d like to help please contact the DAIR Foundation at their website and make a donation, or learn how to sponsor your own fundraiser dinner.
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