Dr. Andrew Wakefield - the British physician who was accused in February by the Sunday Times of London of altering data in a 1998 paper on autistic children, bowel disease and the MMR vaccine - has filed a formal complaint against the freelance journalist who wrote the article.
Wakefield this week delivered the complaint against the journalist, Brian Deer, to the UK's Press Complaints Commission (PCC) - an independent body that investigates alleged inaccuracies, invasion of privacy and misreporting by the media.
The complaint accuses Deer of "publishing incorrect information and also of having a conflict of interest caused by his involvement in the General Medical Committee's (GMC) investigation of Wakefield," according to a news release issued by the doctor's advisors.
Wakefield - who now lives in Austin, TX - and two colleagues are currently the subject of hearings at the GMC, which has accused them of serious misconduct in the research and writing of the 1998 paper on autism and MMR vaccine.
"Mr. Deer has failed miserably as a reporter and has done great harm to me and many others conducting autism research," Wakefield said in the release.
The most sensational accusation against him printed in the Sunday Times held that Wakefield had altered and manipulated data on many of the 12 children who were written up in the paper.
Deer wrote: "The doctor who sparked the scare over the safety of the MMR vaccine for children changed and misreported results in his research, creating the appearance of a possible link with autism, a Sunday Times investigation has found."
Deer also said that, "Confidential medical documents and interviews with witnesses have established that Andrew Wakefield manipulated patients' data, which triggered fears that the MMR triple vaccine to protect against measles, mumps and rubella was linked to the condition."
The accusations made worldwide headlines and further lacerated Wakefield's already tarnished reputation within mainstream health and science circles. But Wakefield, in his 58-page complaint to the Press Commission, is finally pushing back.
"There is no basis in fact for any suggestion that I "manipulated patients' data" at any time," he says in the complaint. "There was no misreporting or changing of results by me," he wrote. "None of the evidence presented during the GMC hearing over the past year-and-a-half, supports any allegation of manipulation of data by either myself or any of the other 12 co-authors on the paper.
Deer had reported that, "In most of the 12 cases, the children's ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records." But Wakefield explains the discrepancies as follows:
The documents relevant to the evidence presented in the Lancet paper are clearly identified in that paper. These included the Royal Free Hospital records and where available, the prospective developmental records from parents, Health Visitors and General Practitioners (GPs). The team therefore relied on the totality of the information available to them, as stated in the paper. This is entirely normal practice. Since then further records have been collated for the GMC enquiry, which were not available to the hospital team at the time of writing the paper.
The records that were before the GMC included a complete set of the children's local hospital records, a full set of the GP records to include all GPs who had been involved the child's care as well a the Royal Free Hospital records and any other records relating to the child e.g. school medical records.
Reliance on differences between these data sources i.e. those relied on by the Lancet authors and those relied upon by Mr. Deer in his allegations is disingenuous and misleading since the majority of the latter records were not available to the Royal Free doctors at the material time.
Accordingly, the authors of the Lancet paper cannot and should not be held responsible for any alleged 'differences' between the records available to them and the full set of records as set out above. But that is not to say that Mr. Deer's interpretation of any differences is accurate. Rather he has "cherry picked" differences with a view to undermining the credibility of the Royal Free doctors and the Lancet paper.
Later on, Wakefield says the allegations are so farfetched they are nothing but "patent nonsense."
His premise, namely that I am determined to pull off an impossible scientific and medical scam. Indeed, the notion that any researcher can cook such data in any fashion that can be slipped past the medical community for his personal benefit is patent nonsense. Such an idea is absurd on its face and unravels before the evidence (as has happened at the GMC hearing), which is consistently ignored by Mr. Deer. Scientific rigor requires repeatability for verification of any research and Mr. Deer's implications of fraud against me are claims that a trained physician and researcher of good standing had suddenly decided he was going to fake data for his own enrichment.
Wakefield also takes the freelancer to task for reporting on a news story that he himself allegedly helped to initiate - namely, the GMC trial of Dr. Wakefield.
"(Deer) shouldn't even be writing about my case since he is on record as having filed the original complaint with the GMC and has become complicit in the agency's investigation," Wakefield writes.
Deer has denied he is the source of the GMC complaint against Wakefield - although Wakefield notes that in February of 2004, Deer wrote to a GMC official to "ask your permission to lay before you an outline of evidence that you may consider worthy of evaluation with respect of the possibility of serious professional misconduct," by Wakefield and his associates.
"It was in fact Mr. Deer who initiated the investigation by the GMC in the first place," says Wakefield's complaint to the PCC. "He therefore has an undeclared interest in its conclusions. Failure to have disclosed this conflict to readers of the Sunday Times is misleading."
According to the complaint, the PCC code of conduct "states that the Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information and that while 'free to be partisan' it must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture, and fact."
In yet another section of the complaint, Wakefield alleges that Deer gave him less than 24 hours "to respond to what are clearly very complex issues in an article which had inevitably taken some considerable time to put together. This was clearly insufficient time to consult properly with the lawyers handling these issues on my behalf at the GMC to seek their considered advice, and to access the documentation needed to formulate a proper and thorough response."
It is not clear where this will lead. According to its website, the Press Complaints Commission is "an independent body which deals with complaints from members of the public about the editorial content of newspapers and magazines. Our service to the public is free, quick and easy. We aim to deal with most complaints in just 35 working days."
Commission members will review the accusations and decide what, if any action to take from there. In 2007, however, the Commission ruled on only 32 out of more than 3,400 complaints it had received. "All those which were critical of a newspaper were published in full and with due prominence by the publication concerned," the PCC says.
It has been a full month since the Sunday Times article ran, and Wakefield has remained relatively silent about it - until now. The response from Mr. Deer will likely be widely anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic.
NOTE: It has been pointed out that my name appears on a list of "Advisors" on the website for Thoughtful House, the autism treatment center in Austin where Dr. Wakefield works. An official there asked me a few years back if I would lend my name and, because I respect their work, I agreed. It is an honorary listing - I do not literally provide advice to the group, nor do these advisors ever meet or speak. I had forgotten I was even on the list, or else I would have made this disclosure originally. Thanks to the person who pointed it out.
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