The notion that vaccines cause autism – one of the least informed and most damaging ideas prevalent in modern society – can be traced back to one essay written in 1998. Andrew Wakefield, a now-disgraced gastroenterologist credited with starting the anti-vaxx movement, published the paper along with 12 co-authors, who have since retracted their names from the research. Wakefield, however, continued to double-down on his assertions throughout the decades and continued to push his research that has since been proven inaccurate, dishonest, and fraudulent.
How anti-vaxx started is a sad enough tale, but the story of how it has continued to grow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, is even more distressing. Through the promotion of celebrity anti-vaxxers like Jenny McCarthy and her former husband, Jim Carrey, the movement against vaccinating children has exploded and is now having a demonstrable effect on the health of children. Wakefield's paper came out decades ago – and was debunked almost immediately – but countless parents and anti-vaxx proponents continue to disregard the scientific evidence demonstrating the benefits of vaccines.
Andrew Wakefield is a formerly respected – but now disgraced – doctor who "specialized" in gastroenterology until he his medical license was revoked in 2010. He was born in 1957 in the United Kingdom, but he didn't rise to worldwide infamy until after his 40th birthday with the publication of his 1998 essay on the link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
However, even before that scientifically dubious act, Wakefield was trying to connect vaccines to various diseases. In 1993, the gastroenterologist became convinced that measles, and subsequently, the measles vaccine, caused Crohn’s disease. By 1998, this hypothesis had been thoroughly disproved.
In 1995, after failing to link the measles vaccine and Crohn’s disease, Wakefield was approached by Rosemary Kessick, whose son had both bowel issues and autism. Kessick was the leader of a group called Allergy Induced Autism, and she inspired Wakefield to begin researching the possibility of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella.
Wakefield soon sought out children for a study on the dangers of vaccination.
By 1998, Wakefield and 12 collaborators were ready to publish a paper in the medical journal The Lancet, in which they announced their discovery of something called autistic enterocolitis. The study, which only consisted of 11 male children and one female child – a fairly small and restricted sample size – suggested that as many as eight of the children had developed autism and gastrointestinal disease in a timeframe that insinuated their MMR vaccinations as possible culprits.
Although the study claimed to have found no proof of a causal link, the abstract's phrasing suggested the opposite. The paper soon became the subject of major scientific controversy.
Wakefield and his co-writers’ assertions were instantly called into question by the medical community – but not before they became a source of wide public interest. Wakefield himself decided to hold a press conference in February 1998 to promote his findings. He also sent a video of himself to various news channels, in which he called for the suspension of the MMR vaccine until its possible links to autism could be studied further. He also advocated for the triplicate vaccine to be replaced with single injections spread over several years.
This incited public panic, leading some to cite Wakefield's announcement as "one of the biggest public relations disasters in medicine."