I rarely do book reviews. Nor do I often suggest books to read. But every once in a while I come across one that is simply too good to just read, return to the library, and carry on without comment.
Such a one is The Doctor Who Fooled the World by multi-award-winning British journalist Brian Deer. Deer tells the sordid story of Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor sometimes called the “father of the anti-vaccine movement.”
Wakefield published a paper in the eminent British medical journal The Lancet
that claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. He caught on in the media, and I mean not only social media but also the mainstream media. Some British newspapers practically fronted for him, and in a visit to the U.S. he got a spot on the CBS show 60 Minutes, the most-watched newsmagazine on television.
As it turns out, MMR is not linked to autism. Nor did his study show that it is. His research was rigged. He was being paid handsomely by an ambulance-chasing British lawyer who wanted something “scientific” to support a lawsuit against the pharmaceutical companies. Furthermore, Wakefield had developed a single-dose measles vaccine of his own to peddle as an alternative to MMR. It was all simply a get-rich-quick scheme.
However, due in large part to Deer’s work, the scheme was exposed. The lawsuit collapsed, Wakefield was struck off the medical register, and The Lancet was humiliated.
End of story? Not even close. None of this slowed Wakefield down. He simply moved to the U.S. and went all out against all vaccines. He became an icon among the anti-vaxxers, attracting a host of enthusiastic fans, including a range of celebrities and rich benefactors. He amassed sufficient funding to make a movie promoting the cause which achieved considerable success. Even Robert De Niro shilled for it at one time.
I don’t want to be a spoiler so I won’t give the end of the story away except to say that it lays waste to the old adage that cheaters never prosper.
In telling the story of Wakefield, Deer inadvertently tells his own story, one of journalism at its very best. He battled medical secrecy, cover-ups, smear campaigns and gagging lawsuits, but persevered. Wakefield and his crowd have contributed to much sickness and many deaths, and continue to do so, but if it hadn’t been for Deer they would have caused a great deal more. He illustrates why good journalism is more important today than it’s ever been.