Monday, February 9, 2009

It was Wakefield, in the Study, with the false data?

Over the weekend the the Times Online has reported the results of an investigation that "prove" that Dr. Wakefield altered the data behind his controversial study linking the MMR vaccine and autism. The stories are both authored by one reporter by the name of Brian Deer. Mr. Deer has been involved in covering this story for many years and seems to attempting to be Wakefield's Harry Markopolos.

For those of you who don't know or who have been hiding under a rock for the past several years, Dr Wakefield is currently facing charges in the UK over this matter. It is worth noting that the trial/hearing/procedure is still currently underway and no verdict has yet been rendered.

These reports have of course created the usual stories for the usual places with the right wing of the autism debate proclaiming that this is yet another nail in the coffin for the theory and the left wing proclaiming that this is yet another smear job by Brian Deer.

Then you have the instant classics like this one :

How many of you have read Peter Pan? Do you remember Tinker Bell? Do you remember her saying that every time someone says that they do not believe in fairies, a fairy dies? It is the same with immunisations. Every time someone says they don't believe in immunisations, a child will die.

(Ok, that isn't really a fair quote, but that passage is way over the top. Go read the original for the complete context)

And yet another one :

This may cause a firestorm in the antivax community, but there are two things I will guarantee: the first is that in the end antivaxxers will stick to their beliefs that vaccines cause health problems like autism, because this is not and never has been, for them, about the facts and evidence. It’s a belief system, and like most other belief systems, it is impenetrable to evidence.

And then you have the ones here and here and here, really, it is everywhere.

Dr. Wakefield has responded to the allegations here.

The standard line is that his study has been disproving many times over. But that is a funny thing, if you go looking for a study that attempts to replicate his findings, there aren't many. Oh there are studies that were attempted that used other methodologies, and then there are the studies that looked for a correlation between autism and the MMR and failed to find one - but most took a different path than the original study.

The only decent size study that I am aware of that attempted to replicate his methodology is this one. (This study is open access, so go read it yourself for the full picture). Now this study is presented as a study disproving the theory - yet there is one very interesting tidbit that is buried in the study. Apparently out of the 38 subjects in the study (25 cases and 13 controls) they did find evidence of the measles virus in the GI tract of two of the subjects - one from each of the groups.

You may say so what, but what I find interesting is that before this it was not accepted that it was possible for the measles virus to do this.

So what's the bottom line here? The new allegations from the Brian Deer is based on "hidden" and "confidential" medical records so there isn't any way to verify what he s saying. Mr Deer clearly has an axe to grind - which doesn't mean he is wrong but it does cast some doubt on what he is saying. Science hasn't properly attempted to replicate his study and the only one that did hints at some things that weren't though possible.

Overall I think I have to agree with that Harold Doherty wrote here. The jury is still out and it is premature at best to declare that Wakefield is guilty.

Edited to add:

This is an example of how these sorts of allegations could be handled differently (site requires free registration).

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