Measles, the Anti-Vaccine Crowd and the Peer-Reviewed Article Partially to Blame

A big measles outbreak in the US is generating considerable news of late. Much of the blame, rightfully so in my opinion, is centered on parents who have refused to vaccinate their children out of ill-founded paranoia. Most of their anti-vaccine “thinking,” if you can call it that, is grounded in muddled anti-science. However, one of the intellectual pillars of the anti-measles movement is rooted in peer-reviewed science. And not just any science, but none other than the acclaimed high impact journal Lancet. To my way of thinking this is a big part of the problem.

Andrew Wakefield’s much ballyhooed and eventually discredited 1998 Lancet article, concluded that childhood vaccines were a possible cause for autism. Parents of autistic children seized upon this possibility, especially A-list celebrity Jenny McCarthy, invoking the Wakefield article as proof of their fears. Unable to weigh the scientific merits for themselves, the fanatical anti-vaccine public at large ascribed considerable veracity and power to the Wakefield article in large part because of its publication in Lancet; although undoubtedly this article also reinforced a narrative they wanted to believe. Like most of its peers within the “luxury” journal domain, Lancet revels in every opportunity to burnish its reputation for publishing “important,” high quality science and in doing so, laughing all the way to the bank. It is impossible to believe that had the Wakefield article been published in the Burmese Journal of Gastroenterology it would have gotten nearly the same zealous respect it did in Lancet.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fault Lancet for publishing a bad paper; such risk is intrinsic to publishing a peer-reviewed journal. However I do take issue with the reputation Lancet seeks to foster around impact factor and by intimating that their peer review process results in a meaningfully more valid scientific publication; the Wakefield article being a perfect case in point of why this thinking is flawed. Any scientist with integrity knows that the proper perspective for approaching all scientific publications involves a substantial dose of skepticism until the findings within have been replicated, oftentimes more than once.

Despite its subsequent retraction, Wakefield anti-vaccine believers refuse to relent, claiming even today that allegations of scientific misconduct are a conspiracy at the highest levels of science. If the Wakefield article had instead been refuted by a democratic barrage of post-publication critique and scoring, ala SIQ, it would be much harder for the anti-vaccine fanatics to keep believing in discredited science. That said, as long as luxury journals are perceived as having a uniquely rigorous peer review system, and therefore uniquely truthful, the public health will be disserved as we are currently witnessing in this measles outbreak. We at Cureus continue to believe that there is a better process via more rigorous post-publication review, as implemented in our SIQ. Give it a chance – you’ll be surprised.

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2 thoughts on “Measles, the Anti-Vaccine Crowd and the Peer-Reviewed Article Partially to Blame

  1. My father, Thomas C. Peebles MD isolated the measles virus in 1954 from a sick boy named David Edmonston at the Fay School in Southborough, Massachusetts, grew it in tissue culture in John Enders Lab at Children’s Hospital in Boston. Enders and Tom Weller (who also later won the Noble prize with Enders for their work on polio) could not see under the microscope the cytoplasmic effect of the virus called a multi-nucleated giant cell, but my father was convinced he saw this never-before described effect in tissue culture. Despite Enders telling him to stop working on Measles because, in Enders opinion, he was not getting results, my father persisted. He passed the effluent from the cells exposed to Edmonston’s blood and saliva from cell culture to cell culture, continuing to observe the cytoplasmic effect that others could not visualize. Then he inoculated a monkey with the effluent, and low and behold, the monkey got the measles, proving Koch’s postulate of the isolation of a pathogen. Enders, when he finally admitted that my father has done it, isolated the measles virus, he insisted that, as head of the laboratory, his name be placed before my father’s on the medical articles announcing this discovery.
    That Edmonston strain was used to produce the measles vaccine, and is the same one still used today. It is very safe and effective, and all children should receive this life-saving inocculation.
    My, who died a few years ago, would be heart-broken to realize that his hope of eliminating this sometimes deadly scourge on man-kind, and particularly children, has not been realized, and that measles is back in the news and causing unnecessary suffering.
    My father’s obit in the NY Times can be seen here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/05/health/05peebles.html?_r=0
    Doug Peebles MD

    1. Thanks Doug for your comment. Undoubtedly your father would be crest fallen at the anti-science perspectives held by so many vaccine opponents, whose own lives have been thoroughly blessed by yor father’s work. If you are ever in the mood to write a short bio of your father beyond the NYT obituary, I’d love to be able to publish it in Cureus? thnx John Adler, MD and Editor in Chief

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