This was originally posted at http://africanjungle,iblog.co.za/ on July 3rd, 2010.
The Lancet paper was coauthored by Wakefield and 12 other people. In February 2004, shortly after Brian Deer revealed Wakefield’s conflicts of interest, 10 of the coauthors retracted their authorship, citing their unhappiness with the way the conclusions in the paper were being used. John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch did not retract their authorship and would later have cause to regret their decision.
There is a commonly-held belief that Brian Deer lodged the original complaint with the GMC that led to the investigation of, and hearing on, Wakefield’s actions. This belief is not true. A February 27, 2004 BBC article stated, “The General Medical Council is now carrying out an investigation into Dr Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who led the 1998 study.” This statement, coming only five days after Deer’s first report was published, not only weakens any suggestion that Deer directly initiated the investigation, but raises the possibility that some form of GMC inquiry on Wakefield was under way even before Deer’s allegations were made public.
The hearing began in July 2007. Wakefield faced numerous charges. The most serious ones centered around the tests given to the children. Wakefield had ordered Lumbar Punctures, Colonoscopies and Barium Meals done on the 12 children in his original study.
In a Lumbar Puncture, also known as a Spinal Tap, a hollow needle is inserted into the spine between two vertebrae and a quantity of cerebro-spinal fluid is collected for analysis. The procedure can’t be done under anaesthetic and, due to the high quantity of nerves in the spine, is excruciatingly painful.
Before undergoing a Colonoscopy, a patient must follow a liquid diet for a few days to empty out the Large Intestine. The day before the examination, the patient takes a laxative. For the exam, the colonoscope is inserted up the patient’s rectum. Air is pumped into the colon from the scope to inflate the Large Intestine and the scope is then used to inspect the colon. The colonoscope can also be used to take samples of tissue for biopsy.
Barium is a slightly radioactive substance. A barium meal is food with barium added to it as a tracer. After consuming the food, the patient is X-rayed. The radioactive barium shows up the soft tissues of the body in the x-ray.
Because of the highly invasive nature of these tests, any medical professional wishing to perform them on a child has to first appear before an ethics committee and get permission. Wakefield had never even submitted requests to the committee. Furthermore, one of the original children in Wakefield’s study had his bowel perforated in 12 places during his colonoscopy. In addition, Wakefield had paid children at his son’s birthday party 5 pounds each for blood samples. Footage of him joking about this and his audience laughing was shown at the hearing.
On January 28th 2010, after sitting for 197 days over a two and a half year period, the hearing rendered its verdict. Andrew Wakefield had over 30 charges against him found proven. John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch also had charges against them found proven. A few days later, The Lancet retracted the paper from the published record. Wakefield, who had by then become a director at a clinic in Texas named ‘Thoughtful House’, was forced to resign from this lucrative position.
On May 24th 2010, the sentences were announced. Wakefield and Walker-Smith were both judged to have committed serious professional misconduct and sentenced to be struck off the Medical Register. They were given 28 days in which to appeal. If no appeal was lodged in this time, the striking off would become final. Murch was ruled not to have committed serious professional misconduct and was not sentenced to be struck off.
In my next and final post about the background to the MMR-Autism manufactroversy, I will write about the consequences of Wakefield’s lies.