This morning, The New York Times Magazine posted Susan Dominus’s lengthy profile of Andrew Wakefield.
As I told Dominus, I have conflicted feelings about pieces like this. On one level, I think they run the risk of simply giving more oxygen to someone who has already taken significantly more of the media’s attention than he deserves. There’s a sort of bizarro-world nature to the correlation between the attention Wakefield receives and the total scientific bankruptcy of his notions…and in a month when an entire Virginia school had to be shut down because of a whooping cough outbreak spread by non-vaccinated students and ten (and counting) children have been hospitalized in Minnesota because of a measles outbreak started by a deliberately unvaccinated child, I’m not sure the rantings of a disgraced doctor who was caught on tape joking about drawing blood from children at his son’s birthday party needs any more attention.
I’ll (probably) discuss this more in depth later on, but right now I’m late for a doctor’s appointment…er, for my weekly meeting with my co-conspirators in the medical-pharma-academic-government establishment. For now, here are some highlights.
Wakefield’s allies offer a warning to potential critics:
Michelle Guppy, the coordinator of the Houston Autism Disability Network and the organizer of the [Wakefield rally], said she believed her own autistic son benefited greatly from one aspect of Wakefield’s work: his conviction that untreated gastrointestinal problems could be behind some of autism’s symptoms. It was Guppy, it turned out, who thought to hire the armed guards “to make the statement,” she said, “that this is neutral ground, and it’s going to be civil.” Guppy, a mother of two who was elegantly dressed for the occasion, made no pretense of neutrality herself. She narrowed her eyes when she learned that a writer from The New York Times was there to write about Wakefield.
“Be nice to him,” she said, “or we will hurt you.”
Wakefield’s New World Order conspiracy theories:
For Wakefield, the attacks have become a kind of affirmation. The more he must defend his research, the more important he seems to consider it — so important that powerful forces have conspired and aligned against him.* He said he believes that “they” — public-health officials, pharmaceutical companies — pay bloggers to plant vicious comments about him on the Web. “Because it’s always the same,” he says. “Discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield, discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield.” He also “wouldn’t be surprised” if public-health officials were inflating the number of measles mortalities, just as he thinks they inflate the risks of the flu to increase uptake of that vaccine. Having been rejected by mainstream medicine, Wakefield, the son of well-regarded doctors in Britain, has apparently rejected the integrity of mainstream medicine in return.
The co-option of modern technology by anti-Wakefield forces:
Wakefield never seemed too perturbed by my questions; if he felt any irritation, he took it out on his GPS, which he seemed to think was out to get him, just like his critics. “There’s no left turn here, you idiot,” he said to the disembodied voice. “Turn right? Why? What’s the point?”
The co-founder of Jenny McCarthy’s autism organization on Wakefield’s place in the pantheon of messiahs:
“To our community, Andrew Wakefield is Nelson Mandela and Jesus Christ rolled up into one,” says J. B. Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue, a group that disputes vaccine safety. “He’s a symbol of how all of us feel.”
Wakefield’s current existence:
Wakefield now lives in a high-end Austin neighborhood, a private enclave where most homes, including his, enjoy generous acreage and bucolic views of the hills. “You can almost believe you’re in Tuscany,” he says of the view from his back deck.
* There’s something very Dark Side of the Force-ish to Wakefield. He’s like an anti-Obi Wan, mocking actual scientists and medical professionals everywhere: “You can’t win. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”