REVIEW: The Doctor Who Fooled the World by Brian Deer

In brief: The story of Andrew Wakefield, who published a study linking the MMR vaccine and autism (which was later proven to be false) by the journalist who exposed the truth.

The good: Very detailed yet easy to read story of the events.

The not-so-good: Sometimes Deer seems a bit jaded by the medical profession.

Why I chose it: I thought I knew this story. But I didn’t know the depths of it. Thanks to Scribe for the copy.

Year: 2020

Pages: 394

Publisher: Scribe

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Medical non-fiction is a busman’s holiday for me, but I do enjoy this genre so much! (It’s okay, you can call me weird). Generally I read about discoveries leading to the greater good, but The Doctor Who Fooled the World is the opposite. It’s investigative journalism at its best and medical research at its worst.

This is the story of Andrew Wakefield, a doctor in England who wrote about a link between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, inflammatory bowel symptoms and autism in children. Further studies found links between autism and the MMR vaccine, which led to a panic in the UK and later in America. Vaccination rates decreased in children. Parents of children with autism began to consider the timing of symptoms with vaccination and felt guilt at how they may have changed the course of their child’s life. It was a worrying time for many. But behind the press conferences and papers, there was a lot more going on. The seminal study wasn’t random in its selection of patients. Rather it was part of a lawsuit which Wakefield received money to research the link. Results were massaged to fit the hypothesis. There was scandal when it was discovered.

Brian Deer introduces the story by telling the reader what happened from Wakefield’s perspective – the lead up, the research and the subsequent panic – but also points out the faults along the way. Quite a lot of this section of the narrative is peppered with digs at the medical profession and medical research, some not so worthy in my opinion. (I don’t know anyone who measures their research in pages in a journal. Number of words of the article is immediately forgotten once the article is accepted in my experience.) This put me off a little but it seemed to tone down once Wakefield was exposed by Deer himself. This section explains the lengths Deer went to, including the incredible depths of his research, to show the flaws in the data that disproved the original claims about MMR. But Deer doesn’t end there, following Wakefield (now no longer a doctor in the UK) to America and his integration with the anti-vaccination movement. This was an eye-opener and something that I hadn’t really heard about.

The Doctor Who Fooled the World is a fantastically detailed look at why we need investigative journalism and the global effect of misinformation. Deer details his years working on this case honestly, resulting in a story so big you’ll marvel at how it was allowed to happen.

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