Author of Discredited Vaccine-Autism Report Sues for Libel

Staff Writer

Gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield has been defeated at nearly every round in a legal battle over his claims about autism, but he's coming back for another. An article Wakefield published in 1998 linking the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism and bowel disease was immediately challenged and discredited. Wakefield, formerly based at a U.K. hospital, was convicted in 2010 by the British General Medical Council of four counts of dishonesty and 12 counts of endangering children; he lost his license to practice medicine, retracted multiple articles, and lost his job at his Texas enterprise Thoughtful House. But on 3 January, he filed a defamation lawsuit in Austin, Texas, against the authors of a series of articles appearing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) exactly 1 year ago that accused him of fraud.

The brief names three defendants: investigative journalist Brian Deer, who analyzed Wakefield's data in a BMJ article and accused him of fraud, BMJ editor Fiona Godlee, who threw the journal's support behind the fraud accusation in an editorial, and BMJ as a whole. The suit claims that the journal, bolstered by a series of subsequent media appearances by Deer, "acted with malice" and damaged Wakefield's character, reputation, and earning potential by accusing him of "misreporting and [data] alteration" and "deliberate fraud." It also cites as evidence of a conflict of interest the fact that BMJ receives money from vaccine makers GlaxoSmithKline and Merck. The brief does not specify how much money Wakefield wants for damages. As bloggers have noted , this case will be one of the first tests of a new Texas law designed to discourage capricious libel suits by putting the burden on the plaintiff (Wakefield in this case) to prove that the defendants' speech has caused damage before the suit can go forward.

This is not the first time Wakefield has sued Deer for libel. He did so in 2005 over a documentary Deer created for the United Kingdom's Channel 4 television station that accused Wakefield of fraud. After 2 years, the judge in that case denied a stay requested by Wakefield and wrote an opinion telling Wakefield's team they had to provide more evidence, suggesting that Wakefield "wishes to use the existence of the libel proceedings for public relations purposes." The judge said that because of the impending GMC investigation, "the trial will turn upon fundamentally serious issues going to the heart of the claimant's honesty and professional integrity." Wakefield's team soon dropped the suit and paid the defendants' legal expenses.

A joint statement from BMJ and Deer, who have not yet been formally served with legal papers, says that, "unsurprisingly the BMJ and Mr. Deer stand by the material published in the BMJ and their other statements and confirm that they have instructed lawyers to defend the claim vigorously." As to why the proceedings were filed in Texas rather than in the libel-suit-friendly United Kingdom, they said that "any action brought against the BMJ and Mr. Deer in London would have been immediately vulnerable to being struck out as an abuse of process." ScienceInsider has left messages with Wakefield's attorney but has not received a response.

Posted in Health