The controversial Andrew Wakefield, whose now largely discredited research ignited the vaccine-autism furor, has filed a defamation suit in a Texas court against the medical journal BMJ, its editor, and an investigative journalist over a series of articles published last January.
The articles, by Brian Deer, as well as commentaries by the journal's editor Fiona Godlee slammed a now-infamous 1998 paper in The Lancet that suggested childhood MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccinations had caused autism-like symptoms in 12 children.
Deer's reporting had uncovered numerous discrepancies between details presented in the report and the children's actual histories, as detailed in their medical records and their parents' recollections in interviews. He also disclosed financial ties between Wakefield and lawyers preparing litigation against vaccine firms.
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Godlee went further, charging that Wakefield had deliberately "alter[ed] numerous facts about the patients' medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome."
The Lancet had formally retracted the paper in February 2010 -- most of its 12 co-authors had repudiated it long before -- and the U.K.'s medical regulatory authority subsequently stripped Wakefield of his license to practice, finding that he had been "intentionally dishonest and misleading."
But that was long after the paper had ignited a firestorm of controversy and fear, leading many parents in Britain and elsewhere to refuse to have their children vaccinated. Wakefield and later backers of the MMR-autism theory have been blamed for subsequent measles outbreaks, with declining vaccination rates said to have undermined the "herd immunity" previously enjoyed.
In the lawsuit filed in his adopted hometown of Austin, Texas, Wakefield called the BMJ articles "unfair, incorrect, inaccurate, and unjust."
Further, the suit charges, the articles "were and are false and written and published with actual malice and intended to cause damage to Dr. Wakefield's reputation and work ... and to permanently impair his reputation and livelihood."
For example, Wakefield denied having seen some of the records cited by Deer at the time the 1998 paper was being written. Therefore, the suit suggests, it was impossible for him to have deliberately misstated their contents.
It also asserts that, when the articles were published, BMJ failed to disclose that it had "received significant revenue from the very vaccine manufacturers whose products need further investigation." Months later, the journal acknowledged that this should have been noted when the articles appeared.
Wakefield and his lawyers promised that they would "show that it is Deer, Godlee, and BMJ who have provided misleading information regarding these 12 children's histories."
The suit also details numerous statements allegedly made by Deer and Godlee in speeches and interviews that it says are "defamatory per se."
When asked for comment by MedPage Today, Deer and BMJ sent a joint statement promising to fight the suit.
"It would appear from the claim filed at court that Mr. Wakefield still stands by the accuracy of the Lancet paper and his conclusion therein, thereby compounding his previously found misconduct," the statement said.
It also noted that Wakefield had brought several previous suits against Deer in British courts. "In each instance the case has been dropped by Mr. Wakefield," it said.
Deer and BMJ also ridiculed Wakefield's choice of a Texas court in bringing the suit, rather than "in London, as might be expected as it concerns a predominantly English publication."
The suit cited the "Texas Long-Arm Statute" as justification for the venue, insofar as BMJ "direct[s] a significant and regular flow of publications, including periodicals, journals, articles, subscriptions, and electronic media to institutional and individual residents of this state."
Libel and defamation suits brought by famous people have traditionally been more difficult to win in the U.S. than in Britain. A landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision, New York Times v. Sullivan, ruled that public figures must prove that untrue, derogatory statements about them were deliberate lies or made with "reckless disregard" for the truth.