BMJ, Editor, and Journalist Sued for Defamation

Caroline Cassels

January 10, 2012

January 10, 2012 — The lead author of a controversial 1998 study linking a childhood vaccine to a "new type" of autism and which was published in the Lancet is suing the British Medical Journal (BMJ), its editor-in-chief, and a journalist for defamation.

Andrew Wakefield filed the lawsuit in Texas on January 3, claiming he has been deliberately defamed by the BMJ for a series of 3 critical articles and accompanying editorials it published in early 2011 about his study, which linked the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to a "new type" of regressive autism and bowel disease described as autistic enterocolitis (AE).

The Lancet ultimately retracted the study in 2010. However, the research, which received wide media attention at the time, was blamed for plummeting MMR vaccination rates.

In early 2011, the BMJ published the series of 3 articles and editorials charging that Wakefield's study was "an elaborate fraud" and that he intended to "make a vast profit" from marketing a diagnostic testing kit.

According to the court filing, the BMJ, its editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, MD, and investigative journalist Brian Deer published the articles "with actual malice...intended to cause damage to Dr. Wakefield's reputation and work as a researcher, academic and physician and to permanently impair his reputation and livelihood."

Andrew Wakefield

Wakefield also claims the articles "contained unfair, incorrect, inaccurate, and unjust criticisms of findings" reported by Wakefield and his 12 coauthors.

The court filing also claims the defendants engaged in a "mass propaganda campaign" soon after the articles were published, noting that the BMJ did not disclose that it had received "significant revenue" from vaccine manufacturers, signaling a possible conflict of interest, until 2 months later.

The suit does not mention the Lancet's retraction of the study or that 10 of its 12 coauthors ultimately disavowed the findings. It also does not disclose that Wakefield was ultimately stripped of his clinical and academic credentials by the United Kingdom's medical regulatory authority. The court filing document lists the plaintiff as Dr. Andrew J. Wakefield, MB, BS, FRCS.

At the time of the articles' publication, the BMJ pointed out that it had done its homework, noting that they had been fact-checked against the 6-million-word transcript from the UK General Medical Council (GMC)'s Fitness to Practice panel hearing, which announced after 2 1⁄2 years that the investigators acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly."

According to statements from Dr. Godlee at the time, "The Lancet retraction was prompted by the results from the GMC hearing."

Although the BMJ, Dr. Godlee, and Deer are all based in London, Wakefield, who is also a citizen of the United Kingdom, filed his suit in Texas, where he now resides.

A Texas court would have jurisdiction under the Texas Long-Arm Statute; the filing points out that the defendants "purposely availed themselves of the privileges, benefits, advantages, and profits of conducting their affairs in the state of Texas by directing a significant and regular flow of publications, including periodicals, journals, articles, subscriptions, and electronic media to institutional and individual residents of this State."

In a joint statement sent to Medscape Medical News, Dr. Godlee and Deer note that "While we await formal service, unsurprisingly, the BMJ and Mr. Deer stand by the material published in the BMJ and their other statements and confirm that they have instructed lawyers to defend the claim vigorously."

The full case filing is located on the Courthouse News Service Web site.

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