Doctor Accused Of ‘Buying Blood’

The doctor who linked the MMR jab to autism, prompting one of the biggest medical controversies of the past 10 years, paid children attending his son’s birthday party to donate their blood for his research, it was alleged yesterday.

{mosimage}The charge is one of more than 40 laid against Andrew Wakefield, a surgeon who became a gastroenterologist, at the General Medical Council yesterday. Many of them related to giving children interventions such as lumbar punctures, barium meals and colonoscopies which allegedly they did not need.

Mr Wakefield is facing a General Medical Council hearing which is expected to last 14 weeks with two colleagues from the Royal Free hospital, where he worked – Professor John Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch, all three of whom deny allegations of serious professional misconduct.

The episode at the birthday party involved Mr Wakefield alone. The charges stem from a story he himself later told at a presentation in California in March 1999. He allegedly told his audience that he asked 32 children, aged between four and nine, and whose parents were present, to give blood during the party and gave them £5 each as an incentive.

The charges say he took blood in “an inappropriate social setting” and “showed a callous disregard for the distress and pain that you knew or ought to have known the children involved might suffer”. In the circumstances, say the charges, “you abused your position of trust as a medical practitioner”.

Mr Wakefield, Professor Walker-Smith and Professor Murch worked together on research project 172-96, which resulted in the paper published in the Lancet medical journal in February 1998. The paper, suggesting a link between measles vaccine, bowel disease and autism, and comments made at the time by Mr Wakefield suggesting single jabs might be better than the combined MMR, seriously damaged public confidence in the MMR.

Many parents opted out, while others sought out single vaccines, which the Department of Health claims are not as safe and lead to some children missing some of the jabs.

Many parents of autistic children believe Mr Wakefield and colleagues have been victimised by an establishment that refused to question the vaccine’s safety. A substantial group demonstrated outside the GMC all day, holding placards reading “Witch hunt” and “Crucified for helping sick kids with autism”.

But part of the case hinges on Mr Wakefield’s alleged failure to reveal financial conflicts of interest.

The GMC says Mr Wakefield knew or should have known that the publication of the paper “had major public health implications” and “would attract intense public and media interest”. Yet he was advising lawyers for the parents of autistic children who were considering suing the vaccine manufacturers, and part of the funding for his study came from the legal aid board.

He was also working on possible treatments and vaccines for children who had both bowel disease and developmental disorders. Around June 1997, he filed a patent application for “a new vaccine for the elimination of MMR and measles virus” and a drug to treat the two conditions.

By December, he had tried out the new drug on one of the 12 children in his study. This child, referred to in the GMC hearings as Child 10, was started on an experimental substance called Transfer Factor. It was not until two months later, on February 2 1998, a few weeks before the Lancet paper was published, that Mr Wakefield applied to the Royal Free’s ethics committee for permission to carry out a study of Transfer Factor in children.

Meanwhile, Mr Wakefield was involved in setting up a company which would produce, formulate and sell Transfer Factor. He would be the research director, while the father of Child 10 would be either chief executive or managing director.

Mr Wakefield is charged with causing Child 10 to be given an untested medicine for experimental reasons at a time when he had not been given ethical approval. He abused his position of trust as a doctor, failing to record the drug dose or prescription in the child’s medical notes or tell the child’s GP – and he did not have the necessary paediatric qualifications to prescribe for a child, the charges allege.

Mr Wakefield faces charges relating to 11 of the 12 children studied for the Lancet paper; the exception was a private patient from the United States.

The most serious charges are that he and his colleagues did not have ethics committee approval to put the children through the battery of invasive tests and treatments to which they were subjected. Yet they were given lumbar punctures, barium meals, colonoscopies, brain scans and other tests without proof they were needed, the charges say.

The case continues.