When Dr Wakefield interviewed on Good Morning America today, an injustice occurred. For children, I mean. And it occurred inadvertently I suspect. But I believe this injustice happens all the time when it comes to childrens’ health and wellness. What the media covers really changes how we think and feel about protecting and parenting our children. The media’s effort to inform and educate, just like that of physicians and nurses, social workers and ancillary staff, researchers and students, can get lost and misconstrued. ABC worked hard to inform us of the accusations against Dr Andrew Wakefield with a 2 minute introduction by Dr Richard Besser, a pediatrician and medical editor/correspondent. Yet when the interview was over, I was left remembering the myth.
Today I awoke to the boys asking for breakfast. After getting them to the table with a bowl of Life (always strange to offer a cereal named after our existence), I poured milk in my own bowl. Suddenly I realized that I needed to get the recycling and garbage to the curb. I donned my boots and a coat, ready to haul the can and a number of collapsed boxes to the curb. But just as I headed out of the door, the phone rang. It’s when the day went from the typical day (“making” breakfast and moving garbage) to a day steeped in really trying to understand. My mom was calling, she said Andrew Wakefield was about to be on Good Morning America. I hit my personal fast forward button, flew to the curb with the garbage, and got back inside with enough time to hear the complete interview.
Dr Wakefield interviewed on GMA with George Stephanopoulos who later labeled the interview “combative.” Mr Stephanopoulos was given a terribly difficult task: he was interviewing Wakefield on one of the most complex, emotional, and loaded quandaries of the last few decades: vaccine-hesitancy and Wakefields’s purport linking vaccines to autism. When Wakefield failed to deny any allegations and failed to discuss the significant research that refutes his own work, Mr Stephanopoulos had to defend science. Alone. George Stephanopoulos isn’t gaining popularity (read the comments) with the anti-vaccine crowd and even some who doubt what Dr Wakefield claims. Yet ultimately, the 7 minute interview with Stephanopoulos and Wakefield simply stirs the pot. I trust it will have huge viewership. I worry that this is, in part, why it was done.
We need to discuss immunizations in the context in which decisions about immunizations are made. At this point, interviewing Wakefield alone does not serve children or our public well. His myth and legacy regain power with each second he’s on the news. We need to have discussions about immunizations that reflect the fear that has arrived on parents’ doorsteps because of Wakefield’s work. We needed a general pediatrician, a parent of immunized children (the majority of parents, of course), and a vaccine expert in the interview, too. Having Dr. Besser in the interview can be a great start. We need voices of reason. We need to frame issues surrounding immunizations truthfully. Although Dr Wakefield made claims that he didn’t want others to stop immunizing for diseases like whooping cough (Pertussis), his work is at the core of hesitancy in The United States for all vaccines. George Stephanopoulos needed to make that point clear. Although Wakefield now defends and talks about one vaccine (MMR), he fueled millions of parents to distrust all of them. In the office, when parents who are hesitant about immunizations talk about their worry, they point to Wakefield’s claim.
This interview today is illustrative of his power. Seven minutes alone in front of millions is power.
In Dr Besser’s introduction, there were some micro-interviews (sound-bites) of Dr Paul Offit (vaccine expert and pediatrician) and Seth Mnookin (author of a new book, The Panic Virus). Neither were given the time and exposure Wakefield received. What we learned from Dr Offit and Mr Mnookin about immunizations could easily be forgotten by the time the interview with Wakefield is over.
Continuing to wage a war between those who want to immunize and those who don’t, isn’t working. Parents are increasingly more confused, not more informed, after interviews like today. Although some bloggers are declaring vaccine-hesitancy dead since the information in BMJ on Wakefield’s fraud was published, I think we’re far from seeing the end of vaccine-hesitancy. Distrust in our physicians and nurses only increases when stories and interviews occur in this fashion. I believe I will be listening to and helping families concerned about immunizations for the rest of my clinical pediatric career.
Let’s change how we report and discuss issues around vaccine-hesitancy and the “controversy” in vaccine research. We need to realign patients with the physicians and nurse practitioners who care for our children. Our children deserve better than to force parents to do “research” online about immunizations, as Dr Wakefield suggests.
Dr Richard Besser has extensive experience caring for children in practice and an impressive history of leadership in academia and at the CDC. He did a wonderful job summing up the state of where we are on vaccine-hesitancy in this country. But Besser’s introductory segment wasn’t enough. We leave the interview with Wakefield and go back to our cereal thinking about the “war” (see PBS last year) over vaccines. The interview this morning accelerates vaccine-hesitancy in the United States rather than illuminating what science holds. The interview was a near fistfight, demonstrating our differences as parents rather than our similarities.
We must regain our similarities; we all want what is best for our children. Pediatricians and researchers are parents, too.
George Stephanopoulos had an opinion as the interview began; he stated he had read Dr Wakefield’s book and made it clear that he didn’t believe what Dr Wakefield was saying when responding to statements. I agree with the commentary on the ABC blog that he had seemingly made his decision prior to the start of the interview. This is sensible; science really goes against what Andrew Wakefield has claimed. Dozens of large studies have refuted the claims Wakefield made long ago. His research has been retracted by the Lancet. His co-authors have backed away from their words and affiliations. We already knew all this.
It can take only seconds to create a myth. It can take decades to rebuild the truth and refute the myth. That’s where we find ourselves today.
The editorial in the BMJ uncomfortably put Wakefield back into the spotlight. His message, although rebuked, gained more power today. Regardless of the “truth” held in science that vaccines have not been found to cause autism, Wakefield “won” the interview today. Hands down. Arm wrestled George to the floor. His message is memorable. And he puts the onus again on our shoulders as parents and physicians.
We are left remembering Dr Wakefield’s name, we know the title of his book, and his take. He instructed, “My recommendation for parents is to read, there is extensive information out there.” He alienates us from the pediatricians, family doctors, and nurse practitioners who care for our children. Should we imply he doesn’t want us to trust physicians or scientists? He leaves the work up to parents. But this controversy sells.
Viewership is the economy of television. If you’re going to get people to watch, putting Dr Wakefield in the hot seat is a great way to start. But that’s where the injustice occurs. Instead of clarifying, we are left more confused. And those at risk? Our children.
- Did you see the interview?
- What did you think?
- Do the segments leave you feeling vaccines are safe or did it leave you distrusting medicine even more?
As in politics, fear and controversy rage on, it seems.