Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Dr. Wakefield will be found guilty, but does it matter?

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Wikimedia Commons

The decision in the GMC hearing against Dr. Wakefield is expected to be issued later this month. I don't think it will matter what the facts of the case are or whether Dr. Wakefield actually did anything that would considered wrong.  I don't think that he intentionally tried to deceive people or engaged in some massive fraud.

Regardless, I fully expect that they will find him guilty (or whatever the proper term would be) of doing something wrong.

If you think about it, no person's actions are so far beyond reproach that a sufficiently meticulous examination of their actions won't turn up something that they could have done differently. I think this is going to be the case for Dr. Wakefield. There will be something that he did that could have been done better, something that he said that he might not have, or something that perhaps should have been done differently (Note to self : don't take blood samples and children's birthday parties).

The GMC has been noodling about the case for over two years now so they are sure to have found something that they can pin on him. So, I firmly believe that Dr. Wakefield will be found guilty of something.

I don't mean to sound cold or uncaring here - I am sure the issue is very important to the doctor, his family, and his supporters. I am sure that these people firmly believe that Dr. Wakefield has done absolutely nothing wrong.

But that isn't really true.

There is one thing that Dr. Wakefield did that is beyond doubt - he made the medical establishment think for a short while that vaccines, their golden child, might have something to do with autism. They have since manged to convince themselves, rightly or wrongly, that this isn't true.  But, for at least a little while, he had them scared. And for that, if no other reason, he is going to be found guilty.

The question that I find myself asking is how much this will matter to the field of autism. Fortunately, I don't think it is going to have a large impact.

The more controversial areas of Dr. Wakefield's research have already been written off but the more grounded idea of a link between gastrointestinal problems and autism lives on. The proof of this is the consensus report published this month in Pediatrics that (finally) acknowledges that there just might be something worth looking into. I know that Dr. Wakefield wasn't the first to propose such a relationship but the controversy sounding him has helped by making people more aware of the idea.

So, regardless of whether you think that Dr. Wakefield has done something wrong and regardless of whether you think there is any relation between the MMR and autism, I think we should be glad that Dr. Wakefield helped advance the idea that there is a relation between gastrointestinal problems and autism.

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