The raging debate on whether the MMR vaccine causes autism in children comes down to this — nearly the entire medical community is on one side, while controversial British doctor Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy are on the other.
Stuck in the middle are desperate parents — autism affects 1 in 150 American children — who are suspicious over the establishment’s motives in propagating vaccinations and willing to cling to Wakefield’s wild, unsupported theory that the MMR vaccine causes bowel disease and in turn, autism.
A British TV documentary exposed Wakefield’s work as questionable, to say the least. Months before he published the 1998 study, Wakefield had a hand in securing patents for vaccines that could replace MMR, and his methodology was suspect and hasn’t been reproduced by follow-up studies by others.
That hasn’t stop the debunked research from causing a lasting panic, which dropped immunization rates in England and left babies and toddlers there and in the United States, where Wakefield now practices, exposed to deadly diseases when their immune systems haven’t fully developed. Some parents even opt to put their kids through potentially dangerous colonoscopy procedures Wakefield recommends.
NBC’s Dateline did its part to clarify the debate Sunday night by airing an episode titled “A Dose of Controversy,” in which Matt Lauer sat the elusive Wakefield down for a long interview, of which the internet seems not to have captured. The doctor held up as well as could be expected, but seemed squirmy and uncomfortable as Lauer grilled him.
In her analysis of the program and the debate, developmental psychologist Jean Mercer examines the mentality behind Wakefield’s supporters, desperate for an explanation of a condition that is thus far inexplicable.
The evidence seems to be that Andrew Wakefield and his followers jumped to their conclusions rather than building them carefully on a foundation of reliable information.
The sad thing is, parents who want reliable information on Wakefield’s claims have access to it — it’s doubtful they’ll be able to find a pediatrician who recommends against MMR — but refuse to seek it out or listen to it. When it comes to the specter of autism, irrational information that justifies unfounded fears appeals to some over reliable science.