Andrew Wakefield, the doctor struck off the medical register for his discredited research that claimed to find a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, can add another honour to his list this Christmas: the inaugural Golden Duck award for lifetime achievement in quackery, set up by science writer Simon Singh.
Runners-up for the award were Prince Charles and David Tredinnick, the Conservative MP for Bosworth and member of the Commons health select committee. According to the campaign group the Good Thinking Society, led by Singh, the Golden Duck is an annual award to recognise those “who have supported or practiced pseudoscience in the most ludicrous, dangerous, irrational or irresponsible manner”.
In 1998, Wakefield was the lead author of a paper in the Lancet medical journal that suggested a link between the measles virus and inflammatory bowel disease. The paper also suggested the virus played a role in the development of autism. Wakefield later said his research led him to believe that, instead of the MMR triple vaccine, children should be given a series of single vaccines. His statements prompted alarm around the world from parents and a drop in the rates of MMR vaccination and, in the UK, an increase in cases of measles.
In 2010, the Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s paper and he was struck off the medical register after being found guilty of serious professional misconduct. Subsequent studies have found no credible link between MMR with either autism or Crohn’s disease.
Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said that Wakefield’s legacy was “many, many thousands of unimmunised children born over the last 15 years whose parents decided MMR was too risky at the time and subsequently have forgotten all about it. Measles rates are up and they will only decline when this accumulation of susceptibles has either had the vaccine or the disease.”
Singh said Wakefield’s impact on vaccination over the past decade had been important and worrying. “Reminding people of these issues is very important,” he said.
The winner of the Golden Duck was voted on by attendees from the many Skeptics in the Pub groups, which convene talks and events around rationality. Tredinnick made the shortlist for his parliamentary motions supporting homeopathy and other unproven medical ideas. Prince Charles was on the list for his long-term support for groups that lobby for alternative, unproven therapies.
Singh said the idea for the Golden Duck award was inspired by similar prizes in Australia and the Netherlands. “We thought if we’re going to kickstart it over here, then rather than make it a prize for 2012, let’s think about all the ones we’ve missed, let’s make it a lifetime award for quackery.”
He added that it was part of a growing attempt by skeptic groups to organise and call out bad uses of science and evidence in public. “We see a decline in homeopathy in the NHS and we see a decline in the number of homeopathic hospitals. We see skeptics using regulatory authorities or the Advertising Standards Authority to clamp down on misleading claims. I think gradually people that care about evidence and science are getting their message across. All the time what we care about is the consumer or patient. It’s not just an intellectual battle or a battle of ideas, it’s about protecting people from misleading information.”
Next year’s Golden Duck award will be for behaviour in 2013 and likely to focus on politics. “We want to see politicians who, if they’re not necessarily scientists, are willing to listen to scientists and are willing to take on board the evidence that surrounds them, rather than ignore it completely,” said Singh. He said the Good Thinking Society would keep an eye, in particular, on the health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who has previously signed early day motions on homeopathy. “Next year will be really interesting. With politicians knowing they will be monitored in this way, is it going to affect their behaviour?”