The Channel 4 Dispatches programme in the UK has done some good investigative reporting in its time. It’s also been in the front lines of some un-objective reporting about the possible MMR/autism link, including its 2004 programme reported by Brian Deer.
Last Monday’s Dispatches episode, Trump, the Doctor & the Vaccine Scandal, reported by Channel 4 anchor Cathy Newman offered more of the same. It featured Andrew Wakefield 17 years on, but this time included his relationship with the President of the USA, Donald Trump, who’s credibility is not the highest in the UK at present and the President’s relationship with JFK’s environmental lawyer nephew, Robert Kennedy.
As with Deer’s 2014 programme, it seemed the main objective was to do a comprehensive hatchet job on Wakefield. The aim was to presumably encourage as many parents as possible to accept the vaccination of their children, especially those who might be uninclined to do so or undecided. This would be a laudable objective if it would achieve the best possible health outcomes for children – but the science is so opaque on this issue any conclusion one way or another is difficult to make with any degree of certainty.
Those who missed the broadcasting of the episode can view it online for another 28 days.
There is little point giving a blow by blow account of the programme here.
What’s more relevant, in our view, is to understand what’s really going on, why this kind of reporting is bad for public health and bad also for science and medicine in general. It also provides us with a clearer view on what might be done to make sure less of this kind of reporting goes on – and is in the interest of public health, not that of big industries or specific individuals with self-centred motivation.
For us as well, there is little point in making a personal attack on Cathy Newman. She was fed a lot of information from certain quarters, information that has been cleverly honed over nearly two decades to create a very persuasive argument for there being no possibility of any link between autism and MMR, or other vaccines for that matter. It could be said that Cathy Newman was doing her job, and may not have had the space or time to evaluate other sides of the argument. She did what the programme controllers wanted her to do and they are undoubtedly more than pleased with the finished product.
What were the main failings of the Dispatches documentary?
Below are some of our observations:
- Editors did a good job capturing the worst moments of Wakefield, Trump and Kennedy – and failed to balance them with sensible, scientifically founded and rational comments made by the three individuals about the issue
Hear Andrew Wakefield speaking along with others concerned about vaccine safety on the vaccine panel at the Conscious Life Expo in Los Angeles, February 20, 2016. Wakefield’s presentation begins 28:35 mins into the video.
- Paediatrician and vaccine expert (and developer of the rotavirus vaccine), Dr Paul Offit, Chief of Infectious Diseases and Director of Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, was the prime authority used to debunk Wakefield and Trump’s views and (wrongly) claim safety of vaccines. The programme failed to declare Offit’s conflict of interest with the vaccine industry, or that Offit is probably the vaccine industry’s number one ‘academic’ champion, who has his own critics within academia. Offit also wrote a book in 2011 that takes a very deep dig at the anti-vaccination movement without dealing with its scientifically justifiable concerns.
- The documentary implied that debunking the very difficult to prove autism/MMR link was equivalent to saying vaccines (in general) play no role in adverse effects on the neurology, immune system or gut microbiome of vaccine children. These issues are quite different and there is copious evidence for the role of vaccines. Remember how long it took to force the tobacco industry to take responsibility for its role in increasing lung cancer rates? The fascinating story of the 40-year battle to overcome the might of funded science, cronies and tobacco industry apologists is eloquently laid out by Fred Pampel in his book, Tobacco Industry and Smoking. The tobacco industry had its very own Paul Offits – several of them.
- The documentary entirely ignored all the available evidence of vaccine side effects and payouts by government compensation schemes, including over $3.5 billion by the US ‘vaccine court’.
- The reporting implied vaccines are safe when they are not.
- The documentary failed to discuss the kinds of approaches, many based on solid and validated science, that parents who choose to not vaccinate their children might engage with to help build their natural immunity. These approaches include delaying the vaccination until children are 3 years of age, avoiding elective caesarian-sections, prolonging breastfeeding, minimising antibiotic exposure, maintaining healthy and diverse diets in weaned children that diversify and balance the microorganisms in the gut that are vital to a healthy immune system, reducing environmental chemical exposures and exposing children to microorganisms through outdoor activities (‘hygiene/microbiome hypothesis’).
- The programme claimed that the HPV vaccine is one of the safest vaccines, whereas data secured by the UK Independent newspaper from the UK’s medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) under a freedom of information request, suggests it has by far the highest rate of recorded adverse events
Hear Erin Crawford, Gardasil HPV vaccine trial participant tell her story
- The programme made digs at Wakefield’s earnings in his non-profit, the Strategic Autism Initiative, yet failed to comment on Dr Offit’s earnings from the vaccine industry which are orders of magnitude larger.
- The programme avoided giving recognition to Robert Kennedy Jr for his work as one of the US’s most prominent environmental lawyers, being named by Time magazine as one of the “Heroes of the Planet”. When interviewed by Cathy Newman, Kennedy referred to a much larger body of work than the 17 studies cited by Offit and other vaccine supporters that are claimed to disprove any autism/MMR link, yet information about these other (independent) papers (see www.vaccinepapers.org) were never revealed in the programme. The programme failed to mention Kennedy and many others’ (including our) concerns about the potential cumulative effect of aluminium in vaccines in susceptible children.
Research on potential risks of aluminium in vaccines
- For more information about scientific publications linked to vaccination risks, please refer to the Vaccine Papers website.
The issues about vaccine safety have become so polarised that scientific consensus has moved very little, with the bulk of primary care physicians and governments being entrenched in the camp that recommends the full vaccination schedule to all children.
While the voice of those who appear to have been harmed by vaccines is getting louder, the vaccine establishment is becoming more aggressive and confrontational towards the so-called ‘anti-vaccine movement’ which could more accurately be described as a ‘concerned about vaccine safety’ movement.
We’re going to end with a statement that might be controversial to some. The success of any movement is strongly associated with the credibility of its leaders. Donald Trump, Robert Kennedy Jr and Wakefield know this very well. It is more than understandable how Andrew Wakefield became the ‘poster boy’ of the anti-vaccine movement, but he has more to offer scientifically, and his credibility has potentially been damaged irreparably by vaccine protagonists. Therefore the position he’s put in by his supporters may actually be slowing, rather than accelerating, the accurate communication of available scientific and clinical knowledge about vaccines.
Something to ponder…while we consider the various ways we’re working on trying to redress the unacceptable polarisation in interpretation of vaccine science.