An open letter to Gordon Brown
If you want to help families affected by autism, you shouldn’t be inviting Polly Tommey to No.10.
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
Dear Prime Minister,
In response to her ‘Dear Gordon’ billboard advertising campaign (see below), you have invited the British autism campaigner Polly Tommey to discuss her campaign with you on Wednesday 15 April. However, in the interests of children and families affected by autism, I hope that you will refuse support for her key activities – upholding discredited links between vaccines and autism and recommending unproven and untested fringe treatments.
In her campaign posters, Mrs Tommey, whose 12-year-old son Billy is autistic, offers to save the UK government £500million a year by helping people with autism to get jobs. But it is not clear from the posters how she thinks this can be achieved. However, The Autism File, the magazine she edits, focuses on two issues: supporting the campaign led by the former Royal Free Hospital researcher Andrew Wakefield against the MMR vaccine and promoting ‘unorthodox biomedical’ treatments for children with autism.
The current issue of The Autism File contains a 15-page feature providing a detailed account of the case presented by Dr Wakefield to the General Medical Council, where he is currently facing charges of professional misconduct. The recent judgments in the US Omnibus Autism Proceedings revealed the consensus among experts that Wakefield’s research was scientifically flawed and probably fraudulent. Yet this research has proved damaging to thousands of parents – on both sides of the Atlantic – who were drawn into futile litigation. The resulting decline in confidence in MMR has contributed to renewed outbreaks of measles. It is regrettable that The Autism File should continue to uphold pseudoscience to the detriment of children’s health.
The Autism File promotes a range of ‘unorthodox biomedical’ treatments for autism. These include exclusion diets, vitamins and supplements, anti-fungal and anti-viral medications, and ‘detoxification’ regimes, such as ‘chelation therapy’, which purport to remove ‘heavy metal’ toxins from the body. Practitioners providing these treatments also offer a wide range of unvalidated investigations. Polly Tommey’s husband Jonathan, who is closely involved in The Autism File, also runs a private clinic providing biomedical tests and treatments (though he has no medical qualifications).
Contributors to The Autism File claim that, as a result of biomedical treatments, their children are ‘cured’ or ‘recover’ from autism. Though it is well recognised that the behaviour or performance of children with autism may improve over time, credible evidence for these dramatic claims is elusive. There is no coherent scientific rationale for these diverse interventions, and scant evidence for their efficacy or safety. In 2005, a boy from the UK died while undergoing chelation therapy in the USA. Not a single paediatrician or autism specialist practising in the National Health Service supports the unorthodox biomedical approach.
Biomedical tests and treatments impose a heavy burden on families, with costs running to thousands of pounds a year. Children with autism, depicted by The Autism File as an epidemic disease, offer an opportunity for some clinics and practitioners. The Autism File carries pages of advertisements by private clinics, laboratories and suppliers of biomedical products.
Though Polly Tommey has considerable skills in self-promotion and wealthy commercial sponsors, she does not represent families affected by autism and is in no way accountable to them (the National Autistic Society fulfils this role). If she demands that the government invest more resources in researching alleged links between vaccines and autism, I suggest that she should be advised that this would be a waste of scarce funds. If she demands government support for unorthodox biomedical testing and treatment, I would further suggest that she should be advised that until there is good evidence for such interventions parents should be discouraged from imposing them on their children (and warned to beware of practitioners recommending costly but unproven treatments).
If she wants better provision of diagnostic, supportive and educational services, she might consider adding her energies to the long-running campaigns of the National Autistic Society and others, currently focused on the Autism Bill.
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick
London GP, father of autistic son and author of MMR and Autism: What Parents Need To Know and Defeating Autism: A Damaging Delusion.
CC: Greg Beales, Health Adviser, No.10 and Phil Hope, Care Minister, Department of Health.
One of Polly Tommey’s billboard posters
spiked-issue: MMR and autism