For three days at the end of January, the Renaissance hotel in Washington DC fills up with television executives from around the world.The Realscreen Summit is where the makers of reality TV gather to discuss ideas, negotiate deals and discover the next Apprentice or I'm A Celebrity. Among the estimated 2,200 people who had paid up to $1,600 (£1,050) this year to try to snag face time with an exec from Freemantle, TLC, Discovery or National Geographic was an Englishman in his mid-50s wearing jeans, a crisp, white shirt and loafers, and carrying a MacBook. On his badge were the words "Autism Team".
This man's pitch was a reality TV series about autism, and he hada short trailer on his laptop: an autistic child screams; another bites his mother's hand; another repeatedly and violently slams a book against his head. Then a narrator tells us that "every day across the world, medical symptoms of hundreds of thousands of people with autism are being ignored". Cue piano music and the titles, The Autism Team: Changing Lives.
The man in the white shirt and jeans punting the prospective TV series that day was Andrew Wakefield, coauthor of a now notorious 1998 study, published in the Lancet, that suggested a possible link between autism, gastrointestinal disease (it was Wakefield who coined the term "autistic enterocolitis", which Krigsman diagnoses in the Autism Team trailer), and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Afterwards, Wakefield called for the suspension of the triple jab, which caused widespread panic and is said by his critics to have resulted in a drop in the number of parents choosing to vaccinate their children. Cases of measles rose from 56 in 1998 to nearly 1,400 in 2008. In 2006, a 13-year-old boy became the first person in more than a decade to die of the disease in Britain.