Monday, July 23, 2007

The Vaccine Controversy

What's worse, the risk of autism or foregoing the MMR vaccine?

Parents were asking themselves that question after Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a research paper in The Lancet, in which he set out his theory that the vaccine caused autism. In part, he based the theory on work that was done by Trinity College Dublin professor John O'Leary, a pathologist who examined intestinal biopsies of children diagnosed with autistic enterocolitis. According to the professor, the tissue samples from these autistic children contained the measles virus. Some parents, alarmed at the news, chose to skip the vaccine and take their chances with measles, mumps and rubella. A few whose children were autistic chose to sue the vaccine makers.

Dr. Wakefield now finds himself in trouble with the General Medical Council in London, which is questioning his fitness to practice. This comes on the heels of a hearing last month in a US Federal claims court, where Professor Stephen Bustin has testified in his capacity as an expert in PCR testing. He went to Professor O'Leary's lab in the Coombe hospital and he tried to replicate Mr. O'Leary's results, which formed the basis for Dr. Wakefield's article in The Lancet. No measles RNA turned up in his test tubes. The original research could not be replicated. As far as Professor Bustin could tell, what the folks at the Unigenetics lab were picking up was contamination. The original tests were not conducted properly, nor were they specific for measles. The positive results were positive for DNA, but measles is an RNA virus. It couldn't be measles that they found if they had found DNA.

Unigenetics is a private firm that was paid 800,000 pounds sterling from a British legal fund that was set up for the benefit of those who were damaged by the MMR virus. It now appears that there was no harm at all, that Dr. Wakefield's theory has been shot full of holes and sunk. The experiment that shored up his MMR vaccine/autism connection could not be repeated by another researcher, and that is scientific death.

Such a wild frenzy of panic when the notion was first put forward, and in such a prestigious journal as The Lancet. Such a quiet buzz, as the notion is refuted and shown to be nothing more than artifact. The latest news about autism and MMR vaccine is not very sexy, not very hot and newsworthy. How long will it take doctors to convince their patients that what has become folk wisdom has been thoroughly debunked? How many children will needlessly suffer from a preventable illness like measles because of something that has been shown to be nothing more than laboratory error?

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