The 'Autism Doctor' Isn't a Doctor Anymore. Does It Matter?

Andrew Wakefield, the sham scientist whose now-retracted 1998 paper led millions of parents to believe in a link between autism and the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine, has just lost his license to practice medicine in Britain. This sounds like an important development, but Wakefield doesn't think so. On the "Today Show" this morning, he described it as "a little bump in the road."

Unfortunately, for once, he's probably right. Wakefield isn't going away any time soon. He'll be giving a speech at an autism-and-vaccines rally on Wednesday, which will be a nice chance for him to promote (you knew this was coming) his book.

If the first principle of medicine is "do no harm," Wakefield should have lost his license a long time ago. To say that his autism study was discredited isn't strong enough. Wakefield apparently lied about the young patients he reported on in his paper; his descriptions of their conditions didn't match up with records kept on file at his hospital. He also lied by omission, neglecting to reveal a huge conflict of interest: He had been paid about a million dollars to advise lawyers of parents who were worried their children had been injured by the vaccine. According to the Guardian, Wakefield "tried out Transfer Factor on one of the children in his research programme but failed to tell the child's GP. He took blood from children at a birthday party, paying them £5 a time."

Ten of Wakefield's co-authors eventually renounced his study, and The Lancet, the journal that had published it, formally retracted it in February. Unsurprisingly, follow-up studies in 2002 and 2005 found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine. By then, though, it didn't matter: Wakefield's paper had gotten too much traction among the general public. Vaccination rates in Britain plummeted, and kids started to get sick. In 2006 a 13-year-old boy died of measles, the first victim in Britain since 1992.

Wakefield, meanwhile, has fared pretty well. From 2004 until earlier this year, he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars as executive director of Thoughtful House, a Texas autism "recovery" center. Many people in the anti-vaccine community regard him as a martyr, a whistleblower who lost his job for daring to speak out against a shadowy conspiracy of governments and drugmakers. Jenny McCarthy, the most visible anti-vaccine activist, wrote the foreword to his new book. In February, she and boyfriend Jim Carrey released a statement saying that "Dr. Wakefield is being vilified through a well-orchestrated smear campaign." All of which is to say, if today's censure has any effect, it'll be to boost his stature among his admirers as a man more sinned against than sinning.