The aftermath of one of the biggest public health scandals of the 20th century

The aftermath of one of the biggest public health scandals of the 20th century


A conspiracy theory against vaccination endorsed by 13 experts and published in a prestigious journal was enough to generate a crisis of confidence in the scientific community that still exists today.

In February 1998, the British physician Andrew Wakefield linked the vaccine known as MMR – for the acronym in English for measles, mumps and rubella – with cases of autism in children over one year.

“It should be eliminated,” Walkfield , the study leader, said at a press conference .

His statement was motivated by an investigation that was signed by 13 doctors, among whom he was, and that had been published in the magazine The Lancet.

“The vaccine can damage the intestine causing harmful chemicals in the digestive system to reach the brain, triggering autism,” said the document specifying that only 12 children participated in the study.

It did not matter, the scientific explanation fell on the population.

Panic among parents

The scientific community did not know how to respond to something about which there was no evidence that could prove that the study was wrong.

Group of doctors gathered.
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Image caption The scientific community found itself in a quagmire because it did not find evidence that could contradict the Walkfield theory.

“I found myself in a very delicate position because I could not find evidence to prove otherwise,” tells BBC Health Check program David Salisbury who was director of Immunization at the Health Department of England and Wales until the end of 2013.

The distrust of parents towards vaccines and the scientific community began to grow and vaccination rates to fall.

In that same year, 1998, there were up to 55 cases of children affected by measles, mumps or rubella, diseases that were so far eradicated.

“The problem with measles is that people identified it with a rash or a red spot and we did not have those cases, people did not worry about the disease, I wanted to know if the vaccine was healthy or not,” says Salisbury.

The doctors had to send a public message warning of the consequences that could have on the development of the children not to subject them to vaccines. In some cases it could cause their death, they said.

Baby receiving vaccine
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Image caption Many parents began to distrust vaccines and stopped vaccinating their children.

Finally, in March 1998 a group of 37 experts from the Medical Council of the United Kingdom, after collecting and analyzing data, went on to say that there was no scientific evidence to prove any link between the MMR vaccine and the autistic spectrum.

Dr. Wakefield gave the reply.

“He continued to share his beliefs and continued publishing papers that, he claimed, supported his theory of MMR and autism,” recalls Salisbury.

Walkfield hinted that there was a conspiracy theory in which the pharmaceutical industry, supported by doctors, preached the need to use vaccines. Distrust in the scientific community grew.

Vaccination rates dropped to 80% in England in 2003, well below the percentage needed to keep the local population safe from infection. In 2008, more than 1,000 cases had already been registered.

Baby with measles.
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Image caption Measles cases increased after 1998 in the United Kingdom, something that scientists attribute to the links that Walkfield had made between the vaccine and autism.

Global phenomenon

The rejection of vaccines was not restricted to the United Kingdom, it was extended to other countries and extended over time.

In 2017, there were cases of measles in Romania, Germany and Italy, where a lawwas passed that required up to 12 vaccines , including MMR.

Anti-vaccine movements also reached the United States, which in 2000 had eradicated measles. Three years later the country experienced an outbreak of this disease.

Since then, the number of cases has been increasing from year to year in the country. According to data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States, in 2017 there were 118 cases of people infected with measles in 15 states.

Map with a vaccination syringe
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Image caption Diseases that had been eradicated present new cases every year.

At Discover

The case had unleashed a crisis in the United Kingdom but a specialized journalist gave a key blow to the conspiracy theories of Walkfield.

In an article published in the Sunday Times in 2004, Deer pointed out that the studio that defended Walkfield had been funded by a law firm that offered to file litigation against pharmaceutical companies and the medical community.

The organization, according to the story of Deer, was also the one that took care of choosing children from among anti-vaccination groups and who were part of the study.

Almost a year after the news and after six years of investigation of Deer, the General Council of Medicine of the United Kingdom found Walkfield guilty of not having disclosed his links with this law firm.

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Image caption The law firm behind the study that defended Walkfield sought to take over the lawsuits that parents could present against the pharmaceutical industry.

His name was removed from the official medical record and The Lancet retracted.


But the figure of Walkfield continues dividing the world. Some see him as an individual who has dared to tell the truth that others hide.

“The fear of vaccines is widespread today in the United States, Australia, Germany, Italy and in other places where he has presented himself as a victim of the pharmaceutical industry, blaming others for his situation,” says Deer.

Child with measles.
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Image caption Some experts like David Salisbury believe that the conspiracy theory against the vaccines that spread Walkfield has to do with the number of cases that are given a year of avoidable diseases.

There have been cases of strong opposition to the MMR vaccine among the Somali community in the United States, against polio in Pakistan and even in Nigeria, where it was believed to be used to sterilize men. They are consequences of the Walkfield heritage.

“It is a legacy that no country should adopt, not only the fact of not wanting to be vaccinated, but the distrust of vaccines and the scientific community in general,” concludes Salisbury.

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Rava Desk

Rava is an online news portal providing recent news, editorials, opinions and advice on day to day happenings in Pakistan.


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