For any author, an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show or the mere mention of a book by Oprah Winfrey is an almost guaranteed path to stardom. It’s also an infinitely treasured platform for “commercial activists” to push their cause (and products).
The year was 2007. Entering the stage was Jenny McCarthy, actress and mother of an autistic child she had with director John Asher (she later married Johnnie Wahlberg ). McCarthy did her “research” (almost exclusively on Google) and believed that she has found the not just the cause but the cure that has been eluding healthcare professionals for decades. She was appalled that respectable pediatricians are not offering the questionable “remedies” she found. Something had to be wrong somewhere, right?
The cause for her son’s condition? Vaccines. McCarthy played around with words, saying that she’s not anti-vaccine and we do need vaccines but those we’re having now are just not safe. When challenged with scientific studies, McCarthy arrogantly declared that the only science she knew and believed was her son, Evan. Applause from the audience. Should we be surprised that Donald Trump is still worshipped?
While there were many doctors who jumped on her or dismissed her claims, quite a few actually came out and supported her. This is not surprising as the whole anti-vaccine saga was started by one Dr Andrew Wakefield.
It was 28 February 1998. An ambitious, high profile 32-year-old surgeon at London Royal Free Hospital held a press conference to announce that he had discovered the cause for autism – the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. He asserted that the vaccine combo, when injected into the child’s body, would cause intestinal inflammation; a leaky gut secreting harmful proteins which then affect the brain.
Later that year, Wakefield would publish his shocking findings in the Lancet. He performed spinal taps and intestinal biopsies on a sample of 8 autistic children. To Wakefield’s credit, there could be a correlation between intestinal issues and autism, but there is no proof that one causes the other or that MMR causes intestinal inflammation.
The proportion of vaccinated children dropped from 90% to 70%.. By 2000, hundreds of children in the UK had fallen ill from measles. In Dublin alone, 100 children were down with pneumonia and brain swelling.
Realising that he had opened Pandora’s box, the hospital wanted Dr Wakefield to assure the public that vaccines are safe. But once started, the anti-vaccine storm could not be stopped. In 2001, the London Royal Free Hospital asked Dr Wakefield to resign. Facing the press, Wakefield said that losing the job at the hospital may not look good on his resume, but his biggest concern was the welfare of the children. Wakefield’s sacking would have unintended but totally predictable consequences.
The media became obsessed with Dr Wakefield, hailing him as a hero and a martyr. Thousands of online articles about him were written and shared. Documentaries featured him as a courageous crusader. Others called him a doctor who actually cared. The response from the medical community was phenomenal. Doctors and medical researchers came out in support of Wakefield to share his limelight! The anti-vaccine storm soon hit America. Lawyers and politicians came into the picture, charges against federal government and pharmaceutical companies poured into American coutrooms and all hell broke loose.
Unknown to the public and prior to his announcement on autism, Wakefield had been working on patients with Crohn’s disease. He had been discredited by the medical fraternity for asserting erroneously that the measles vaccine causes Crohn’s disease. He then turned his attention to autism. His study on the link between MMR and autism was funded ($800,000) by lawyer Richard Barr who was actually representing some of the autistic children’s parents in the study. A lawsuit against the pharmaceutical company was in the works right from the start! At the same time, Wakefield had filed a patent for a “safer” measles vaccine.
Thee next item on the stoning pit was thimerosal – a mercury-containing preservative used in vaccines. Boyd Haley, professor of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky led the charge, insisting that the mercury in thimerosal caused autism. He failed to convince the judge in court, but he went ahead and designed a system that could remove mercury from the system through a process called chelation. The father and son team of Mark and David Geier (both fertility doctors who were somehow more successful producing girls than boys) would enter the chelation fray. However, they insisted that apart from chelation, the use of the drug Lupron was essential for ridding the body completely of mercury. Not surprisingly, the Geiers had entered into a licensing partnership with the drug company. A single course of Lupron would cost $20,000 and the Geiers would earn royalties. Someone had to come up with a scapegoat and a treatment and scapegoat must be made to pay for the treatment. Between 1999 and 2007, 5,000 parents had filed claims that vaccines had caused their children’s autism. Guess who are the ones laughing their way to the bank.
In spite of the fact that the Geiers went to court and were dismissed as unsuitable expert witnesses, the popularity of chelation therapy soared from a handful to 10,000 every year, showing how desperate parents of autistic children were. Even the Autism Research Institute, founded as early as 1967 decided to up its profile by keeping a registry of doctors who practised chelation and other alternative therapies in their Defeat Autism Now (DAN) registry.
While most doctors frowned upon chelation, a few happily adopted it. It was simple and and it was damn lucrative – until it claimed its first victims. The active ingredient used in chelation is EDTA which not only binds to heavy metals but also not so heavy ones like calcium. Dentists routinely use EDTA to soften calcified root canals. If too much calcium is precipitated from the blood, the patient can go into cardiac arrest.
The doctors involved in this treatment (they called themselves Rescue Angels) did not want to stop – until one Dr Roy Kerry, a senior ENT surgeon (DAN accredited), was charged in court for involuntary manslaughter, causing the death of a British child. In 2011, the Autism Research Institute terminated its DAN registry even though some “independent” individuals are still practising it.
A father of a boy with autism once said that he felt like he was lost in a pitch dark tunnel. If someone lighted a match, he would head in that direction like a child following the pied piper of Hamelin. Responding to glitzy ads and compelling presentations (by a doctor no less) this father bought into the idea that there are things that they don’t want us to know. He spent a fortune on various forms of alternative treatments, starting with some elaborate hair/stool analysis and followed by specially formulated meals and supplements. It cost him a bomb and would certainly have broken a less wealthy man but the thing that troubled this father – his son got worse and not better. Frustrated with the awful “meals” he was forced to eat, the child became even more difficult to manageMake no mistake, the prevalence of autism these days has spawned a massive industry aimed at ripping off anxious parents. It goes without saying that parents of autistic children can be quite vulnerable to snake oil and often fall victim to rip offs. They are willing to any sum of money to cure their children’s autism. The father mentioned above said that he is willing to try anything no matter how much it costs him. But money is not the only issue. There is a heavy price to pay when one fails to detect fake news.
Just a week ago on 21 February 2019, a two-year-old child in Johor Baru died from severe diphtheria, the latest case of infections due to not being immunised since birth. Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the child was weak and admitted to the paediatric intensive care unit of a hospital. The child was given assisted breathing and antitoxin diphtheria treatment but succumbed to his illness. The trend doesn’t look good and it may take a few more years before the full scale of this tragedy emerges.
In the Philippines, the latest measles outbreak killed 70 people in the first six weeks of the year, according to the Health Department. The most lamentable thing about these untimely, premature deaths is that they are mostly preventable if not for the gullibility of the victims’ parents. They started off with an autistic child. They ended up with a dead one.
The funny thing is, Jenny McCarthy still has hordes of fans who admire the flippant attitude she has towards the folks who are doing real science. Her book is still selling like hot cakes. The nightmare of shell-shocked parents having to come face to face with fatalities and complications from measles and other preventable diseases will continue to haunt gullible parents for years to come.
Some folks may be tempted to ask me – so what is my stand on the propagation of fake news? Shouldn’t the authorities have the authority to ban the dangerous misinformation propagated by Wakefield, McCarthy and the Geiers? Freedom of speech can be dangerous when the one propagating the lies is well-funded and sexy. But before we get carried away, even the scientists can make mistakes and end up misleading the public. It is important to let everyone have a voice. Ultimately only the people get wiser and more discerning. Gullible parents will have to live with their mistakes.
© Chan Joon Yee