I had hoped that, after he disappeared into obscurity in the United States, I could safely ignore Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced former surgeon, who lost his licence to practise medicine in the UK for his dishonest and unethical role in the MMR Hoax. He did surface last year alongside Polly Tommey, who followed her hero into exile in the USA, when they tried to sell an autism reality show. The premise was simple. Film autistic children in distress. Take them to Arthur Krigsman to be given a colonoscopy and diagnosed with autistic enterocolitis. Then cure them with special diets and supplements and film the happy outcome.
This project never came to fruition. But Wakefield and Tommey did intervene in the case of Alex Spourdalakis. They filmed this young man in distressing circumstances in hospital. They made allegations about the treatment he received, relying on the patient confidentiality enshrined in US law to prevent health authorities from responding to their claims. They had a willing accomplice in Alex’s mother and arranged for Alex to be treated by Arthur Krigsman. But refusing conventional treatment and opting for quack remedies did not have the desired effect. Alex was subsequently
murdered poisoned and stabbed to death by his mother. We await the outcome of her trial. Both Wakefield and Tommey were complicit in attempts to use their film to justify her crime.
Wakefield’s most recent exploit pales in comparison to that example of sleaze. It seems that he has taken exception to being called a fraud. Actually he has been called a fraud many times, most noticeably by Brian Deer and Fiona Godlee in the British Medical Journal. He tried to sue them but a Texas court rejected his claim and the appeal has yet to be settled. Time Magazine reported that Wakefield was a fraud. So did CNN, The Daily Telegraph. David Whelan, writing for Forbes Magazine even suggested that the US authorities should deport Wakefield to face fraud charges in the UK. With the exception of his outstanding appeal with regard to the BMJ Wakefield has not responded to any of these reports until now when Emily Willingham, also writing for Forbes Magazine called him a fraud.
Actually Ms Willingham did not make a big deal about the fraud. Her main point was to highlight a recent review of gut issues and autism in Pediatrics which suggests that
It is clear that greater clinical and research scrutiny is needed to increase awareness on this topic and thus support development of the best standards of care. Previous controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine and proposed causal link between ASD and infection of the GI tract probably deterred investigators from dedicating resources to examine GI functioning in this population while fostering uncertainty in the ASD community regarding the validity of this line of inquiry.
This seems perfectly clear to me. Wakefield’s fraudulent research has tainted the investigation of potential links between autism and GI functioning. He has discouraged other investigators into this link and made it difficult for them to obtain funding. He has performed a great disservice to science. More importantly, autistic people with genuine GI dysfunction have struggled to have their symptoms taken seriously. They or their parents have had their concerns dismissed by health professional who are chary of any association with Wakefield’s ideas. It is a bitter irony that some are then welcomed by Wakefield’s acolytes into the alt-med world of untested and unproven biomedical remedies for autism.
Wakefield has written a letter to Ms Willingham threatening her and Forbes Magazine with prosecution, “pending legal advice.” He concludes
You are also advised that I live and work in Austin, Texas where my business is headquartered, and that my work is conducted throughout the US. Your defamatory statements about me will undoubtedly cause me to suffer significant personal and financial damage.
My lawyers are currently dealing with Deer and his co-defendants. They will be turning their attention to you well within the statute of limitations for filing a case against you and Forbes.
Three things strike me. One, this is Wakefield acting off his own bat. He has not taken legal advice. That is pending. He has written a threatening letter to a blogger to bully her into silence “pending legal advice.“ Two, he is not going to do anything unless he gets a successful outcome in Texas regarding his action against the BMJ (Deer and his co-defendants ). Three, talk of prosecution and defendants in relation to civil law is a total nonsense. There is only one criminal in this case and he can count himself lucky that nobody has seen fit to prosecute him yet.
So why is he doing it? My best guess is that he has issued this threat and published it on Age of Autism to rally the troops and revitalize his flagging support. And why is he doing it to Ms Willingham? Perhaps he thinks she is more vulnerable than CNN or Time Magazine. Maybe he hoped that Forbes would take the corporate view and silence her to fend off a potential troublesome lawsuit. Not for the first time he has been proven wrong. Ms Willingham is an eminent scientist, an educator and an accomplished journalist. Forbes recognize her talent and show no signs of surrendering to Wakefield’s bluster.