As NZ public health officials come to grips with a measles epidemic which has left thousands infected and parents fearful to take their babies out in public, the disgraced former doctor whose debunked study sparked anti-vaccination hysteria is living a charmed life in the United States. Bevan Hurley reports.
Displaying the soaring rhetoric of his famous uncle, Robert F Kennedy Jr launched into an impassioned defence of an old friend this week.
The nephew of United States president JFK, and son of candidate Bobby, decried the “global smear campaign” that had plagued Andrew Wakefield, the so-called godfather of the anti-vaxx movement.
“Andy Wakefield stands among the most unjustly vilified figures of modern history,” Kennedy Jr wrote in a lengthy Instagram post.
Wakefield is the disgraced former gastroenterologist who published a widely debunked study in 1998 linking autism to the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine.
He was found to have falsified research, hidden conflicts of interest and even taken blood samples at a children’s birthday party in return for payment for his MMR study.
The controversy saw vaccination rates drop, measles rates rise, and led to Wakefield being ostracised by the medical and scientific communities and banned from practising medicine in the United Kingdom.
For public health officials and vaccinologists on the front lines of fighting the measles epidemic in New Zealand, Wakefield is a dangerous charlatan.
“He is someone who is really articulate, who appears to care, and is playing the victim,” says Dr Helen Petousis-Harris a senior lecturer in vaccinology at the University of Auckland.
“He’s always saying ‘I’ve been hard done by, I’m the victim’. But not every maverick is Galileo.”
DISCREDITED, DISGRACED, DE RIGEUR
The Eton-born Wakefield had a privileged upbringing in England, the son of a neurologist and a general practitioner.
It was while he was researching Crohn’s disease at the Royal Free Hospital in London in 1995 that he was approached by a mother who said her child had regressed into autism after being vaccinated.
Wakefield and several colleagues published a paper in 1998 which was based on a sample of just 12 children. He failed to declare he was being paid by lawyers who were lining up a class action against vaccine producers.
Since Wakefield’s study was published, it has been widely and strenuously debunked by every piece of credible research, including most recently by a Danish study which studied half a million children born between 1999 and 2010 and found there was no clustering of autism cases following vaccination.
According to author Brian Deer, who Robert F Kennedy junior described this week as a “sleazy provocateur”, the misinformation campaign surrounding the MMR vaccine can be linked to declining rates of vaccination and measles in other parts of the world, such as Europe and the Americas.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Wakefield is the architect of all of this,” says Deer, who has been investigating Wakefield since 2004 and is about to publish a book on Wakefield called The Doctor Who Fooled the World.
“He’s been involved all along, and his influence is overwhelming.”
After being accused of “fraudulent behaviour” by the British Medical Journal and banned from practicing medicine in the UK, Wakefield moved to Texas, where he found a more receptive audience for his claims.
He founded the Strategic Autism Initiative and the Autism Media Channel in Austin, which makes videos asserting a link between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Then Trump happened.
In 2016, while on the campaign trail, Wakefield had an audience with the presidential candidate for 45 minutes, at which Trump reportedly reaffirmed his previously stated belief in the link between vaccines and autism. Details of the meeting were kept secret until after he had won the presidency.
Trump was already a well-known vaccine sceptic, having Tweeted in 2014: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!”
Wakefield attended a ball for Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, where he called for a huge shakeup of the US regulators of vaccines, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The “shake-up” never happened, says Deer. Trump installed Big Pharma-friendly executives to run the CDC and his only utterance as a president on the subject was to encourage residents of New York to get the jab after a measles outbreak amongst the ultra-orthodox Jewish community there.
“Of all the things he shot his mouth off about as a candidate, vaccines has been the one that he has done absolutely nothing about,” says Deer.
In the meantime Wakefield branched out into film, he was behind the controversial film Vaxxed: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, a piece of propaganda masquerading as art which Wakefield both stars in and directs, which had limited secret screenings in New Zealand.
“He’s a superstar in the US,” says Siouxsie Wiles, a University of Auckland associate professor and expert in infectious disease.
“There are clearly people who think he is amazing and who buy into this crap. It’s very sad.”
“They welcomed him with open arms,” says Petousis-Harris, “because you’ve got this enormous proportion of people there who are susceptible to his messages.”
When Elle Macpherson swept into Auckland last month for a glitzy NZ Fashion Week gala dinner she was feted like a superstar.
Macpherson commanded the attention of hundreds of diners enjoying a four course black tie dinner at the SkyCity Convention Centre as she sashayed amongst the tables, eclipsing the decades younger models that surrounded her on the catwalk.
In a speech and Q&A, Macpherson delved into the origin story of how the girl from Killara, North Sydney, built a $150 million business empire.
One topic that did not come up was her relationship with Wakefield.
According to Deer, Wakefield and Macpherson first met at a “pretend conference thing” in 2017 in Florida, and then again a few months later at another such event in Chicago.
Since then photos of the pair have popped up together at a Miami organic farm, and at Wakefield’s speaking events. Macpherson was pictured arm in arm with Wakefield and Robert Kennedy Jr on that same Instagram post.
Wiles says it’s too simplistic to draw a straight line between the measles epidemic and the likes of Wakefield, as there are lots of other issues at play. Poverty, access to healthcare, institutionalised racism are all preventative measures when it comes to vaccines, she says.
“My feeling is that there are hotspots of people that totally buy into anti-vaxx bulls…, they’re much more likely to be wealthy. They’re not the ones working three jobs and struggling to get petrol money to go to the doctors.”
Wiles says the modelling world often plays up its connection to wellness, which can lead to dangerous territory.
“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that (Macpherson) can get sucked into those sorts of things. The sad thing is she has lots of influence. When it comes to our health, it is mind-boggling who people will go to for help. We put our health in the hands of people with no skill or training in it.”
Public policy analyst Jess Berentson-Shaw agrees the reasons for declining vaccination rates are far more complex than Wakefield’s junk science.
“We put in place great structures and systems in the 90s to bridge the gap between low and high income families and Maori, Pasifika and pakeha families. It was seen as a core part of a healthy childhood, and we have let that slip.”
She says the best approach to countering his false narrative was not to try to myth-bust his claims, but to have a clear and disciplined message about the benefits of vaccination.
“The information environment that we live in is that polarised, alarming and individualised information, has been turned into a commodity. Places like Facebook have used that to make vast amounts of money.
“Where you say vaccination doesn’t cause autism, all it serves is to amplify. It’s not enough just to throw facts at people, we have to be a bit smarter.”
So far this year there have been 1731 confirmed cases of measles notified across New Zealand, 1400 of these in Auckland.
Mothers of babies who are too young or sick to be vaccinated have been too afraid to leave their homes. And two mothers lost their unborn children to complications related to measles.
Petousis-Harris believes Kiwis impacted by the measles epidemic have every right to be upset at those who are peddling misinformation and those supporting them.
“I think if you’ve got a kid with measles who wasn’t vaccinated because they were too sick or too young I’d be inclined to get pretty pissed off with anyone who is sympathetic to people who seek to detract from this important public health measure.
“She’s not the cause of it, but she’s supportive. If she’s with him she’s going to be associated with him and therefore supportive of his agenda.
“All of the menfolk in my household chucked out their Elle Macpherson underwear. They were disgusted.”
Wiles says it’s important for people who are concerned that their friends or family may be susceptible to the anti-vaxx messaging to take time to speak to them about it. People are far more inclined to believe a friend or family member they trust than a medical professional.
* According to the Immunisation Advisory Centre, vaccinated children are ‘absolutely not’ more likely to develop autism. “There is not a single scientific study that has found an association. The study below pooled the results from multiple studies in the US, UK, Europe and Japan assessed for any risk in more than one million children.