Over the last three weeks the BMJ has published several articles by the investigative journalist Brian Deer, and an editorial co-written by a leading GMC member, alleging that ex-Doctor Andrew Wakefield’s research linking MMR to autism was a fraud.
Brian Deer, The Sunday Times and Channel Four’s Dispatches should be congratulated. The current BMJ editor is right to say that medicine needs more investigative journalism, and to highlight the need for wider vaccination against measles.
But several problems remain. The neutral observer might well ask how the “good” investigative journalism of Mr Deer is to be reliably distinguished from the “bad” of the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph and Private Eye (1). Is it really just the detail, the lengths to which Mr Deer went? I am not convinced that if the Mail’s Melanie Phillips (say) had spent the same amount of time on the story, she would have ended up believing Andrew Wakefield to have been fraudulent, or even deliberately dishonest.
Mr Deer himself seems to recognise the limits of his three BMJ pieces. In a Press Gazette interview last year he indicated that there is no real distinction between scientific journals, newspapers and magazines. He stated in a Guardian Blog (12th January 2011) that the BMJ was part of an “insidious cartel”. What difference does it make, then, that his first BMJ piece was “peer reviewed”, anonymously as usual? Perhaps it would have been more consistent for him to decline such a closed process.
The Lancet’s Richard Horton is alleged to have acted from largely “medical establishment” motives. But in my view there are two significant flaws in the Deer/BMJ account, across the several pieces and editorials. First, it distorts and minimises the history of the “autistic enterocolitis” construct, which developed from a decade or more of speculative but “peer reviewed” research, and not merelyWakefield’s undisclosed legal action.
Second, it ignores the wider context in which the worldwide anti-vaccinationist movement has grown. The British Medical Journal and the Lancet have both played an important role in the current debate, following Vioxx and other cases, about “industry” conflicts of interest and the right balances between openness, promotional claims, and business interests.
However, the BMJ has gone much further, even at the height of the MMR scare in the UK, in promoting scepticism about the “inappropriate domination of the Western view of mental health”, a process in which “doctors and the pharmaceutical industry” irresponsibly push both “Western cultural ideas” and “a rapid growth in the numbers of children diagnosed with conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism” (Timimi, BMJ, 2005).
Two days after Brian Deer’s second article, a Blog piece entitled “How to stop the medical arms race” by a former BMJ editor revealingly set out the default position of the journal (Smith, BMJ, 13th January 2011): select evidence of “technology” and “doctors” leading to worse outcomes, not better. That Richard Smith’s Blog piece was typically urbane and self-deprecating might suggest that here, rather than in the Lancet, lie the real views of the “medical establishment”.
The BMJ has also published many opinion pieces by the “No Free Lunch” campaigner Des Spence which strongly criticise Western medicine. For example: “big pharma use[s] political lobbying to pervert the course of medical justice” (11th March 2009), and “A medicated childhood is blunt, defies reason, and is just bad medicine.” (21st July 2010).
Dr Spence has stated that because of the need to “protect the consumerist patient from themselves”, he and other GP’s suggest “complementary treatment, and even placebos” (4th February 2009). This seems to be a lesser-evil approach, but I have been unable to find any acknowledgement that such GP behaviour, rather than patients’ “health neurosis” (2), could cause the rejection of MMR vaccination (29th July 2009).
Taken together, when some parents, journalists and politicians read views like this, in the light of their own experience of the indifference shown by the “medical establishment” to neurodevelopmental disorders (3), it is not very surprising that they prefer a different version of events: Andrew Wakefield’s continued fight against Western medicine’s vaccine industry, which scored a temporary victory during the fitness to practise (FTP) panel’s 45 days of deliberating in secret (to use Brian Deer’s preferred term, rather than the GMC’s euphemistic in camera). The Wakefield FTP hearing transcript is still not publicly available on the GMC website (4), despite the BMJ’s declaration two weeks ago that it had been published.
Finally, the eminent “evidence-based medicine” expert Professor Trisha Greenhalgh appears to risk inflaming the situation further by repeating a comparison of the MMR sceptics with “flat-earthers” (rapid response, 18th January). This perhaps shows how remote the BMJ is perceived to be from the concerns of ordinary patients, and the “front-line” staff who do not have the luxury of engaging with pro-MMR families only.
If medical journals are really just newspapers with mystique, might it follow that a way out would be for medicine to become an honest trade rather than a dodgy “profession”? No doubt the size of the financial transaction between the BMJ and Brian Deer was small; and it remains open whether the journal’s new policy of modestly remunerating “good” investigative journalism at the expense of “bad”, will have the desired result in respect of the larger dragons of commercialised medicine, which the BMJ appears to see as its mission to slay.
A version of this piece was submitted as a “rapid response” to the last of Brian Deer’s articles, on the day of it’s publication (18th January). Four days later, no “rapid responses” had been published, which will only add to the suspicion that the BMJ is attempting to rig the debate. [The BMJ published an edited version of my “rapid response” in the 12th February print edition:
http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.d809.extract, and a longer online version on 4th February:
All the BMJ quotations can be searched for at http://www.bmj.com/search.dtl .
(1) I attribute this simplistic good/bad dichotomy to the BMJ. It is not my own view, as it should be clear from the rest of this piece that I consider the BMJ itself to have partly caused what is now denounced. The current Private Eye health editor, Phil Hammond, has said that the magazine should not have reported on the Wakefield/MMR issue in the way that it did.
(2) [“Health neurosis” is a quotation from Dr Spence’s 28th July 2009 article: note added 28th February.] This could be called “blaming the victim”, although Des Spence would perhaps argue that the “neurotic”MMR-sceptic is primarily the victim of Western medicine, rather than some GPs’ well-meant promotion of homeopathy and other alternatives.
(3) The prominent vaccine specialist Paul Offit acknowledges this, in the latest introduction (readable with Amazon’s “look inside”) to his book Autism’s False Prophet’s. [Notes 2 and 3 were incorrectly transposed in original: corrected 28th February]
(4) Searching for “Wakefield transcript” or even just “Wakefield”, on http://www.gmc-uk.org/ .