IN EARLY JANUARY, the British medical journal BMJ completed an investigation into one of the most notorious articles in recent history: Andrew Wakefield's 1998 study in The Lancet claiming that the MMR vaccine, designed to prevent measles, mumps, and rubella, causes autism. The Lancet had already retracted the piece in February 2010 (following a partial retraction in 2004), and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license three months later. BMJ concluded that Wakefield consciously distorted the medical histories of each of the 12 patients on which he based his study. "The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," Editor in Chief Fiona Godlee wrote. Such "clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."
Since the original article was published, vaccination rates have tumbled in the U.K. and U.S., while measles rates have shot up. Certainly Wakefield and The Lancet shoulder some responsibility for the damage done to public health. But bad information does not spread and trigger action (or, in this case, inaction) without a willing audience. The vaccine/autism link has been debunked repeatedly since 1998--by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute of Medicine, and the British National Health Service, among many others. Yet the myth persisted. Why?
One reason is perfectly understandable: Reported incidence of autism was going up, and parents in this overprotective age were freaking out. Anti-vaccine sentiment also overlapped with the ideas of the all-natural wing of the counterculture. But a key precondition for believing and propagating the anti-vaccine myth was a fundamental distrust of corporations, especially the pharmaceutical variety.
"The story of how government health agencies colluded with Big Pharma to hide the risks of [the MMR-style vaccine ingredient] thimerosal from the public is a chilling case study of institutional arrogance, power and greed," Robert F. Kennedy Jr. wrote in an influential, conspiratorial, and widely debunked article for Rolling Stone in 2005. "The evidence suggests our public-health authorities knowingly allowed the pharmaceutical industry to poison an entire generation of American children."
You do not need to be an apologist for Big Pharma to observe that maybe it's against the self-interest of an industry to deliberately poison its customers. So how does one arrive at such a monstrous conclusion?