Dr Andrew Wakefield drops libel action against Britain's Channel 4 Television over MMR documentary|
LONDON, UK: The British doctor who sparked the controversy over the safety of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine has dropped a two-year libel action against Channel 4, a fortnight after a High Court judge ordered the disclosure of confidential documents to his opponents.
Dr Andrew Wakefield sued Channel 4, 20-20 Productions, and the Sunday Times reporter, Brian Deer, over a November 2004 Dispatches programme, "MMR: What They Didn't Tell You." Lawyers estimate that the Medical Protection Society, the doctors' defence body which funded the libel claim, faces a legal bill of more than £500,000 for its own and the other side's costs of the case, which was due to go to trial next October.
Dr Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, ignited a huge scare over the triple vaccine when, at a press conference in 1998 to publicise his research on links between the measles virus, autism and bowel disease, he called for the combined vaccine to be replaced by single vaccines.
Deer discovered that some of the children who took part in the research were also the subject of another study funded by legal aid to find out whether they had a possible compensation claim against the vaccine manufacturers. Dr Wakefield failed to disclose to the British medical journal, The Lancet, the £55,000 he had received from legal aid for that study. Dr Wakefield denied a conflict of interest at the time and said the money had gone to his hospital, the Royal Free in north London, not to him personally.
It emerged last month that Dr Wakefield also received hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal aid fees for his work as an expert witness on the compensation case, which was abandoned. He said in a statement that the work had been done over nine years and had been used to set up a centre for treating autistic children in the United States, where he now works.
The film also alleged that he knew of results from his own lab that contradicted his theory about the link between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Dr Wakefield is facing a disciplinary hearing before the General Medical Council, due to start in July. Last month, Justice Eady ordered that documents supplied to the GMC and the body which administers legal aid should be disclosed to Channel 4 for the hearing.
Radcliffes LeBrasseur, the Medical Protection Society's solicitors, said: "The GMC hearing is scheduled to start on July 9, 2007, and run until October 2007. The libel trial was expected to start after this. Consecutive hearings would have compromised Dr Wakefield's preparation for both hearings and would have placed an intolerable burden on him. He remains confident that he will be vindicated. "
Kevin Sutcliffe, deputy head of news and current affairs at Channel 4 and editor of Dispatches, said: "Brian Deer's film was a powerful piece of investigative journalism which tackled a subject of enormous public importance. Dr Wakefield's decision to discontinue the libel proceedings is a complete vindication for both the Dispatches investigation and Brian Deer's dogged journalism."
Solicitor Amali de Silva, who led the team at law firm Wiggin LLP which represented Channel 4, said: "Channel 4 has always stood by the programme and its reporter, Brian Deer. As a result, the action was robustly defended from the outset and if Dr Wakefield had not decided to drop the action, Channel 4 and Wiggin fully intended to defend truth of the programme at trial."
Prash Naik, Channel 4's deputy head of legal and compliance, said: "Our decision to fight on with the action, rather than capitulate to Dr Wakefield's demands to stay the proceedings, is a credit to our legal team's astute tactical skills."
It is understood that no reason was given for the decision to drop the case. But it means that Dr Wakefield and the Medical Protection Society, which was funding his action, will be liable for the costs run up by Channel 4, Twenty Twenty Productions and Deer since the proceedings started early last year.
Dr Wakefield had claimed that the programme meant that he had spread fear that the MMR vaccine might lead to autism, and had acted dishonestly and for mercenary motives.
The case has already had three hearings in court. In October 2005, Dr Wakefield applied to have the proceedings stayed until the end of proceedings before the General Medical Council, the doctors'disciplinary body.
That application - which would have meant that the case would probably not have come to court before late this year - was rejected by Justice Eady, who said in a decision in November 2005 that the defendants had the right to have the case heard quickly, and that a delay would have a serious effect on Mr Deer's right to freedom of expression.
There were two further hearings in November this year, one involving disclosure of files relating to Dr Wakefield's own patients, and the other concerning disclosure of documents which were sent to Dr Wakefield in connection with the GMC proceedings.
In both cases, Dr Wakefield was ordered to disclose the documents to the defendants, although there were also provisions to ensure that the patients' privacy and the confidentiality of medical records were protected.
The case could have proved extremely expensive had it gone to trial, because of the complexity of the issues surrounding the MMR vaccine, and because it would also have involved a number of expert witnesses.
(Sources: The Guardian, January 6, 2007, and UK Press Gazette, January 23, 2007)