In today’s issue of Spiked, you can read a review of a new book by Paul Offit entitled Deadly Choices: How The Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. However, if you live in the UK, the review is all you can read, as publication of the book has been stopped after the publishers were threatened with a libel action.
The book is an account of the rise of the anti-vaccination movement. In particular, the high profile and showbiz version of it that is emerging strongly in the United States, with stars such as Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Oprah Winfrey all fuelling the fire of fear.
In his Spiked article, Michael Fitzpatrick describes how anyone who dares stand up against the cabal of celebrity know-nothings is likely to face “intimidation, threats of litigation and ad hominem attacks”.
It is therefore not surprising that Offit himself is facing a legal challenge to his book in the UK – the natural home of the misconceived libel case.
According to a BMJ news report, Richard Barr threatened libel action over a single sentence in the book that claimed that, as a solicitor, he had personally paid Andrew Wakefield money to “carry out a study for the purpose of the MMR litigation”.
Richard Barr, who is currently a Director of the Society of Homeopaths, an organisations whose members promote their own alternatives to MMR, was the solicitor who was at the heart of the MMR scare with Andrew Wakefield.
In the 90’s, Barr began acting for the JABS support group, set up to help parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines, and started to look for ways that the parents could gain compensation. He was able to ensure that legal aid was available for them. The only problem was that there was no evidence that MMR caused any of the problems the parents were sure were caused by the vaccine.
To get around that problem, Barr came up with a pioneering approach. He applied to legal aid to get funding to do some clinical studies into associations between the vaccine and problems such as autism. He formed a partnership with a sympathetic doctor called Andrew Wakefield who was paid £150 per hour for his time.
The story is now well known: Wakefield published paper and claimed a link between MMR and autism.That paper has since been shown to be fraudulent. The BMJ described the whole affair as a ‘scam’. Wakefield failed to disclose the vast financial interests involved. He failed to disclose that he had patented his own measles vaccines that might be used if MMR could be discredited. The data given the paper has also since been shown to be inconsistent with hospital records – “no single case can the medical records be fully reconciled with what was published”.
As Brian Deer said, “the Barr-Wakefield deal was the foundation of the vaccine crisis, both in Britain and throughout the world.” Offit’s book describes how that manufactured scare has had huge implications for public health and is gaining momentum through celebrity fuelled publicity. Despite the link between MMR and autism having since been conclusively disproven, the anti-vaccine movement appears to be unstoppable.
And so, the publishers of Offit’s book have agreed to take the sentence out. As in all libel cases, slight slip-ups in wording can have catastrophic consequences. Documents obtained from the UK’s Legal Services Commission under the Freedom of Information Act, by Brian Deer, show huge amounts of money (£15,882,159) being paid out and a much more complex process than simply Barr personally paying Wakefield.
Hopefully, we will still see this book in the UK. But not after enormous expense for the publishers. I understand review copies had been sent out and it was ready for launch. Books don’t make an awful lot of money. The chilling effects of English libel laws must make publishers very wary of tackling issues where people are known to be routinely attacked by vested interests, lobby groups and cranks. Publishers can rarely afford to defend even frivolous libel cases – and pulping books will destroy all profits.
That is why the anti-vaxxers must be very happy about this. They do not want you hearing any alternatives to their shrill message. And as Offit states, that is a position that threatens us all.