Andrew Wakefield is the former British doctor who was widely discredited and condemned for his study linking the MMR vaccine with autism.
After publishing his landmark study, The Lancet retracted the paper and it was renounced by his co-authors.
He received his medical degree in 1985 and trained as a gastrointestinal surgeon with an interest in inflammatory bowel disease.
But his licence to practice was revoked and he was struck off the medical register in 2010 by the UK’s General Medical Council.
He had been found guilty of dishonesty, the “abuse” of developmentally delayed children by giving them unnecessary and invasive medical procedures, and acting without ethical approval of his research.
But despite the widespread criticism he received in the UK, the 62-year-old has emerged as a prominent voice in the anti-vaccine movement in America.
His rise and return to the headlines comes as the US faces the worst measles outbreak in nearly three decades.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York have been at the epicentre of the epidemic.
Mr Wakefield, who remains a vocal critic of the MMR vaccine, recently appeared via Skype at a “vaccine symposium” in Rockland County which drew hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Health officials accused him and others of spreading propaganda and putting peoples’ health at risk.
In an exclusive interview, Mr Wakefield told me the community had a right to hear from a range of different voices.
“I was asked to speak to the civic community about the particular problems that they face and my genuine scientific concerns about the safety of this vaccine,” he said.
“The severity of measles doesn’t obviate the need to do vaccine safety studies and produce an adequately safe and effective vaccine and that does not exist….
“So the Hasidic community need information. They’re getting plenty of information from the public health authorities.
“What they needed to do was to balance that with the information from those who have studied this and I’ve studied measles virus since 1990 and have a great deal of understanding of what’s going on.”
This week, federal health officials said 880 people have contracted the disease so far this year.
They say the virus has spread among school-age children whose parents declined to give them the vaccine.
Health officials have been running a sweeping and exhaustive campaign in Rockland County and Brooklyn, urging people to get vaccinated and threatening to impose fines on those who opt out.
Experts say that in Brooklyn, where the ultra-Orthodox community eat, pray and shop together and live in close quarters, people are especially vulnerable.
The vast majority of people do vaccinate, but the highly contagious nature of the disease means it can have a disproportionate impact.
Mr Wakefield claims the problem lies with the vaccine not the failure of people to take it though.
“It’s not failure to vaccinate. It’s failure of the vaccine. And they’ve run into major problems about which they know. No they do not know what to do,” he said.
However, subsequent studies in the last nine years have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism.
One conducted by the Statens Serum Institut, the University of Copenhagen and Stanford University School of Medicine followed up to 650,000 Danish children until they were on average eight years old.
Researchers found 1% of them developed autism.
Most of the children in the study had received the vaccine. There was no difference in the rates of autism between those who had been vaccinated and those who had not.
When I pushed Wakefield on the absence of any evidence to prove his suspicions, he said: “We have been urging since Congress first required it in 1986 that there should be a systematic comparison of the health outcomes in vaccinated versus unvaccinated children.
“We have been begging for that study to be done.”
Back in Brooklyn, a group of Orthodox Jewish nurses are deeply concerned about outsiders spreading false rumours about the vaccines.
Tobi Ash, who works for the Jewish Orthodox Nurses Association, says a group called Peach has circulated a pamphlet claiming the vaccine contains monkey cells and rat DNA and is undeniably linked with autism.
“It’s like a handbook for parents educating and advocating for children’s health, that’s basically a recycled trope lifted directly from anti-vaccine websites,” she says.
She doesn’t know who exactly is behind the magazine, but has been so alarmed by the myths being spread that she is working on a publication to correct the record.
She says some of the many communal religious practices and customs of the orthodox community can make them more susceptible to the spread of disease.
In a community that is not constantly online, she has had to find other ways to communicate her message.
The number of people opting out of the vaccines for religious and philosophical reasons is on the rise and is not the reserve of any one faith or people.
At a rally in Albany, hundreds gathered to protest against the possibility of their right to religious exemptions being taken away.
Some praised Andrew Wakefield’s work, despite it being roundly rejected by medical consensus.
The measles outbreak shows no sign of abating, but the debate about how to prevent it continues to rage, too.
Source: SKY NEWS