The turning point in UK journalist Brian Deer’s investigation of the fraudulent findings of a medical researcher was when a judge ordered the man to keep suing him.
“At that moment, I knew he was going to lose,” Deer said in a lecture at Ryerson University on Feb. 16. 2011.
Deer worked on the story for seven years.
In 1998, medical researcher Andrew Wakefield published a study in a medical journal linking the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism in young children. Deer uncovered that Wakefield was paid $750,000 US two years by a lawyer who wanted to start a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers, two years before his paper was published. Wakefield would receive more money the longer he kept the fraud going.
As Deer discovered more gaps in his research, Wakefield decided to sue him and the Sunday Times newspaper for aggravated libel, as a message to other media. Deer said he ought to frame the claim.
“We took him on,” said Deer. “And we beat him.”
At first, it was just another routine assignment. But after a couple telephone calls, Deer discovered that all of Wakefield’s subjects were pulled from an anti-MMR vaccine campaign group. He also interviewed a mother and could not match up her child to any of the children studied.
By November 2006, Wakefield was ordered to hand over the medical records of the children studied. The General Medical Council was reviewed the records for a total of 217 days and Deer says he was there for two thirds of that.
“I said to myself I was going to be sure I really understood the medical aspect for myself,” said Deer. “The role of the journalist is to test the evidence.”
Wakefield’s work was officially announced fraudulent by the British Medical Journal in January 2011.
Update – Feb. 17. 2011, 3:30 p.m.
Want to know more about the debate between vaccines and autism? Check out this segment on the rise of autism rates in North America from the Dr. Oz show.