In 2000, there were 28.2 million cases of measles and 535,600 deaths. Thanks to massive efforts and vaccines, those numbers started coming down dramatically but more recently measles cases have risen again around the world. It is reported that in the last year alone, it went from 7.6 million cases of measles and 124,000 deaths in 2017 to 9.8 million cases of measles and 142,000 deaths in 2018, most of them children under the age of five.
It should be noted that it was in 1998 that discredited British physician Andrew Wakefield (who was later stripped of his medical credentials) published his now notorious and later withdrawn paper claiming a vaccine-autism link, that the British Medical Journal editorialized as an “elaborate fraud” and credited an investigative journalist Brian Deer with exposing it.
Drawing on interviews, documents, and data made public at the GMC hearings, Deer shows how Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients’ medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome; how his institution, the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London, supported him as he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain; and how key players failed to investigate thoroughly in the public interest when Deer first raised his concerns.
Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.
Moreover, although the scale of the GMC’s 217 day hearing precluded additional charges focused directly on the fraud, the panel found him guilty of dishonesty concerning the study’s admissions criteria, its funding by the Legal Aid Board, and his statements about it afterwards.
Furthermore, Wakefield has been given ample opportunity either to replicate the paper’s findings, or to say he was mistaken. He has declined to do either. He refused to join 10 of his coauthors in retracting the paper’s interpretation in 2004, and has repeatedly denied doing anything wrong at all. Instead, although now disgraced and stripped of his clinical and academic credentials, he continues to push his views.
Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession.
The damage caused by the perpetuation of these false finding continues to pile up.
Huge progress has been made since the year 2000, but there is concern that incidence of measles is now edging up.
In 2018, the UK – along with Albania, the Czech Republic and Greece, lost their measles elimination status.
And 2019 could be even worse.
The US is reporting its highest number of cases for 25 years, while there are large outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Ukraine.
The Pacific nation of Samoa has declared a state of emergency and unvaccinated families are hanging red flags outside their homes to help medical teams find them.
Why enough children are not being vaccinated is more complicated – and the reasons are not the same in every country.
The biggest problem is access to vaccines, particular in poor countries.
The other issue is people who do have access to vaccines choosing not to immunise their children.
While it is a tragedy that some countries do not have the access to sufficient vaccines or the ability to deliver them, it is a scandal when people refuse to vaccinate children because they believe the myths promoted based on just bad, and sometimes fraudulent, science that claims that vaccines cause other health issues.
As health experts keep pointing out, the tragedy is that we know how to stop measles and thus these deaths are preventable.
“The fact that any child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease like measles is frankly an outrage and a collective failure to protect the world’s most vulnerable children,” said Dr Tedros Ghebreysus, director-general of the WHO.
Henrietta Fore, Unicef’s executive director, said: “The unacceptable number of children killed last year by a wholly preventable disease is proof that measles anywhere is a threat to children everywhere.”
[Prof Heidi Larson, from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine] said: “These numbers are staggering. Measles, the most contagious of all vaccine-preventable diseases, is the tip of the iceberg of other vaccine-preventable disease threats and should be a wake-up call.”
I simply do not know what it will take to convince the anti-vaxxers in the US and other developed countries, who should know better, that what they are doing is so dangerous and contributing to the deaths of children all over the world, especially in poorer countries. They may think that it only involves them and their families but they are wrong. With a contagious disease, one cannot restrict it geographically.