Doctor Who Started Vaccine, Autism Debate in Ethics Row

In light of the ethical charges brought against Wakefield, 10 of the original 13 authors of the 12-child article issued a retraction.

Yet, like Offit, Field did not believe the current charges would influence the way scientists viewed Wakefield's hypothesis.

"Taking blood samples without the consent would be a serious ethical and legal violation in the United States and even more so if children were involved," Field said. But, "independent of the autism and vaccine issue, that is unethical behavior. I would also say that counseling parents to avoid vaccines for fear of autism would also be unethical."

Field said it was unethical because, "there is no evidence, even after numerous scientific investigations, of a link between vaccine and autism."

Parents like Rebecca Estepp of Talk About Curing Autism and anti-mercury activists like Theresa Wrangham, say these current charges are irrelevant not because Wakefield's hypothesis has been proved or disproved. Instead, groups like Talk About Curing Autism, the Autism Society and SafeMinds, say they still appreciate Wakefield's work.

"The number one point we were making, kids with autism have gastrointestinal issues. We know this," said Theresa Wrangham, president of SafeMinds -- an organization that dedicated to eliminating neurological damage in children from exposure to mercury. "Our kids are in distress, and this is a recognized area that needs research."

Dr. Wakefield's Legacy Still Debated

Wrangham said bringing up Wakefield on charges of unethical conduct would only "chill" other researchers who want to investigate issues such as vaccine's link to autism, or the mercury additive in vaccines thimerosal.

"Do I think the book is closed on thimerosal? No," Wrangham said.

Estepp, Talk About Curing Autism's manager of strategic planning, agreed with Wrangham in that the charges against Wakefield may lead doctors away from researching vaccines, or gastrointestinal problems in children.

"What comes down at the end of the day is that Dr. Wakefield continued his research," said Estepp. "The things that he has found and the different treatment models that have come about from those findings are the things I've seen improve my son."

Indeed, Wakefield left England since the original 1998 article and has since set up an alternative research and treatment organization called Thoughtful House in Austin, Texas.

Estepp correctly noted that it wasn't a complaint from a parent of the 12 children, but an investigation by U.K journalist Brian Deer that opened up questions into Wakefield's actions.

"In my eyes Dr. Wakefield's work was the foundation of my son getting better," said Estepp.

"The thing that I'm worried about as a parent with a child of autism… is if you are a scientist and you stumble upon something controversial, we now know that scientists can see that their careers or their livelihoods are at stake," she added.

But doctors like Offit warn that not every doctor who goes against the status quo is necessarily a brilliant outlier.

"Science is full of mavericks," said Offit, pointing to stories of genius such as Galileo in which the maverick is originally thought to be heretical and is cast out by the scientific community only later to be vindicated by scientific evidence.

"But the history of science is also filled with mavericks that have this heretical notion that is dead wrong," he said.

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