Thus far mainstream news agencies have been eerily silent regarding a stunning revelation that has the potential to unleash a firestorm of mistrust, outrage, and litigation against regulatory agencies that have long claimed that there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Late last week it was reported that CDC scientist William W. Thompson, PhD allegedly admitted that he and a team of CDC researchers deliberately hid evidence that there was a significant link between the MMR vaccination and autism in African American males. Since that revelation there has been very little coverage of this issue. Some are suggesting that this is just hype but anti-vaccination fanatics with axes to grind or reputations to restore. But is this revelation Tuskegee Experiment or VA Scandal brewing?
First of all I can understand that some of the anti-vaccination advocates such as Andy Wakefield might be extremely flawed and myopic in their quest to latch on to anything that would redeem them for past ethically questionable decisions including his own study that eventually got pulled from the renowned medical journal Lancet, and led to his professional downfall as hotshot surgeon and MMR researcher in Britain. I've also attended conferences where anti-vaccination fanatics have spewed calls for there to be a complete ban on vaccinations without any acknowledgement that vaccines and the herd immunity that they provide is a crucial strategy to combating infectious disease outbreaks.
As a microbiologist I understand and support the foundation upon which vaccinations exist. Overall I believe that they serve a vital function to prevent disease outbreaks. As the statement attributed to Dr. William W. Thompson, the CDC Whistleblower indicates: vaccines have done so much to cut morbidity and mortality of children who would otherwise succumb to infectious diseases. That said, there are reasons why the mainstream media should not brush off these new allegations.
1. Although the key players such as Andy Wakefield may have their own motives for wanting to push this issue, sometimes flawed humans can still be the source of vital information that leads to the exposure of an unethical practice/cover-up. Let's not forget that a few months ago the high level officials at the VA were denying claims that they were cooking the books and putting our honorable veterans' lives at risk simply to make their hospitals look more efficient. Now we know that the situation was even more horrible than initially reported. This revelation has since led to national outcry, a shake-up in the VA leadership, and other beneficial changes in the VA system.
2. Just as Wakefield and anti-vaccination advocates have a reason to want this info to hit the mainstream media, the CDC and others involve may have an even greater motivation for wanting to avoid a MMR/Autism scandal. Not only would it be a nightmare repetition of other unethical medical scars on our history, especially with regards to African Americans (The Tuskegee Experiment), but unfortunately it has the potential to cause some serious harm to beneficial vaccinations not just in this country, but world-wide.
In places like Africa and Pakistan healthcare workers are under mortal threat from suspicious locals who already believe that vaccination campaigns are evil and clandestine measures to eradicate target populations. If substantiated, this MMR/Autism revelation is going to have a negative impact globally on vaccination campaigns that actually do have beneficial outcomes. This would be especially unfortunate in poor countries where infectious disease levels and mortality rates among children are extremely high. The CDC is still grappling with the fallout from the recent scandal about the mishandling of deadly pathogens including Anthrax, and the discovery of vials of Smallpox in old CDC-operated labs.
Right now the CDC and other international agencies are struggling to alleviate the global concern over the current Ebola outbreak. It most definitely doesn't need any negative story about vaccine cover-ups to hit the world-wide media just when they are beginning to use experimental vaccines on Africans in order to try to stop the biggest Ebola outbreak in history. The timing of this MMR bombshell is as bad as it gets in that respect, because Ebola is a deadly killer that we need to contain before it becomes a pandemic. This will be even more challenging if people lose trust in the CDC and are not willing to receive any type of experimental vaccine for fear of what the vaccine might do.
3. It may seem like a fact that supports the traditional assertion that there is no link between MMR and autism if the increased adverse effect is only seen in one ethnic group and not in others. However, from a scientific perspective this is absolutely possible. Just picture for a moment that you have 100 people in a room with a bowl of peanuts and someone claims that he is about to die from an allergic reaction to peanuts. What would happen if you insisted that peanuts don't cause deadly allergic reactions because 99 out of the 100 individuals didn't get sick and are doing just fine? Of course we know from available medical evidence and data that the 1 person who is allergic has a very valid concern.
This is the same concept that applies that may explain why some individual, specifically African American males, may have a higher rate of adverse outcomes from the MMR vaccination. There may be a genetic/ethnic link that exists, just as there are scientifically well established genetic/ethnic links to diseases like Sickle Cell Anemia, to why Native Americans have a higher rate of alcohol addiction, and why 1 out of 99 persons may die from a bee sting or exposure to peanuts when everyone else in a room is alright.
If this cover up indeed occurred, to make it seem like none of the children who received the MMR vaccination experienced adverse effects, it stifles the chances that other researchers would even attempt to look for a genetic link that may contribute to this adverse outcome seen in African American males, especially if a credible regulatory agency like the CDC is reporting that after extensive research, they didn't find any link.
Imagine trying to get grant funding for a research project to study potential genetic factors that may predispose people of African American ethnicity to adverse reactions to MMR vaccinations. The biggest detractor to receiving funding for such a project may be the fact that the CDC report has “established” that no link exists. The grant proposal would probably be denied and the researcher proposing it might even experience negative backlash from peers. However, if this new revelation is true it is my sincere hope is that the scientific community will start to re-evaluate the potential adverse impact of vaccines like the MMR vaccine on select groups of individuals.
Even beyond the potential implications for how this new revelations might impact the way African Americans receive certain vaccinations, there is a broader concern from parents who claim that their children experience immediate adverse reactions to vaccines that have even resulted in death. I would like to make a national call to the biotech and pharmaceutical community to try to develop an “allergy test” for vaccines. Just as there are tests that children can receive to determine if they are allergic to foods like peanut, a test to determine if any component of vaccines may have a negative effect on a child can be developed. This would be an extremely valuable tool that would allow parents and their pediatricians to determine if the child might end up having an allergic reaction to the vaccine before it is administered.
As for what will become of this new revelation about the MMR vaccinations: while I would wish that this story is indeed false, or over exaggerated, I have a dreaded feeling that with time and more revelations from others who want to come forward as whistleblowers, this will be another Tuskegee Experiment type scar on our community. We humans seem to have an uncanny ability to repeat the flawed and atrocious behavior of our predecessors no matter how many times we hear, "never again" and no matter what evidence exists that the previous behavior has caused in indelible scar on humanity.