The old one-two-three hits the anti-vaccination movement

avn_closeIt hasn’t been a good week for anti-vaxers. In fact, it hasn’t been a good year. But the period from the end of January into the first week of February 2010 was particularly troublesome for the luddites of the medical world.

In three consecutive blows, a key piece of research for the movement and its main author have been decisively repudiated, the journal that published his findings has retracted the paper and, most significantly for Australia, the leading anti-vaccination organisation in the country may be closing its doors with the resignation of its leader.

While the edifice that is anti-vaccination might not yet have actually collapsed, there are serious cracks in the structure, enough for it to edge toward being condemned.

On January 28, after the lengthiest such case in its history, the leading anti-vaccination proponent Dr Andrew Wakefield was found to be “dishonest”, “irresponsible” and guilty of putting children through painful and unnecessary tests by the UK General Medical Council.

One of the poster boys of the global anti-vaccination movement, the findings against Wakefield mean there is a strong possibility of his being struck off the medical register.

In 1998, The Lancet published a paper by Wakefield and others outlining research which supposedly found a link between the childhood MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine and autism. This finding was immediately picked up by anti-vaccination groups as evidence of the dangers of vaccination. That this research was not duplicated by others, and that most of the co-authors of the paper subsequently disassociated themselves from it, seemed to be of no consideration to the movement – the anti-vaxers’ case, as far as they were concerned, was proved; end of story.

The upshot of the release of Wakefield’s findings was a great deal of media coverage outlining the supposed dangers of MMR vaccine leading to autism in patients. What has been described as “panic” ensued, with vaccination rates immediately dropping in the UK. This lead to an increase in diseases that the MMR vaccination was designed to prevent. Vaccination rates have apparently still not fully recovered to the levels before the scare.

But with the GMC’s findings against Wakefield’s dishonest and irresponsible practices, the anti-vaccination movement took a heavy blow, as his ‘research’ had been the foundation of much of its specious argument.

The next blow to Wakefield’s reputation came from The Lancet itself. On January 2, the prestigious medical journal issued a full retraction of the paper, stating that:

“It has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect. … Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.”

True to form, the anti-vaccination movement came out in defence of Wakefield, describing him as a martyr to the cause, and Wakefield has been quoted as saying he had “no regrets” over his work. One correspondent on a forum described the GMC panel as “evil judges from the garden of Stalin”.

But with the demise of the ‘scientific’ foundation for the movement, on February 3 came another blow. Meryl Dorey, founder of the Australian Vaccination Network (more accurately the Anti-Vaccination Network) announced to her followers that:

“within the next 3-4 weeks I will tendering [sic] my resignation as President of this great organisation and moving on to the next stage of my personal development”.

Dorey cited financial pressures and her need to “still have a life” as reasons for her resignation. She says that she hopes someone will step into the breach, offering enough money for her to continue in the job. (So much for her stated desire to return to being a mother and a wife for the benefit of her “children [who] have missed out on so much so I could run the AVN”.) The alternative is that some equally fervent anti-vaxer will take over the AVN and continue her proselytising work.

She hopes her magazine, Living Wisdom, will be sold as part of a total asset sale. If not, its future would be uncertain, and may be closed. Those who have subscribed to the magazine will apparently just have to grin and bear it. As of February 5, however, the AVN was still spruiking subscriptions on its website.

Dorey has said she will continue to do “research, speak and write about vaccination”. This would include her seminars which means she would likely still be subject to the current  HCCC investigation as a health information provider.

Dorey’s stark warning is that:

“If nobody comes forward to take on the role of President or if the funds are not provided to allow us to continue … the AVN will be ceasing operations on or about the 28th of February.”