Nine years after he triggered one of the biggest health scares of recent times, Andrew Wakefield appeared before a disciplinary panel of the General Medical Council accused of paying children [pound]5 to take their blood samples at his son's birthday party.
The doctor, who suggested the MMR vaccine might cause autism, leading to a collapse in immunisation levels nationwide, was accused of showing "callous disregard for the distress and pain" he knew or ought to have known the children might suffer as a result of his actions.
It was one of a litany of charges against Dr Wakefield and his two former colleagues, Professors Simon Murch and John Walker Smith, who are fighting to defend their professional reputations. If found guilty of serious professional misconduct in the case, which is scheduled to last 15 weeks, they could be struck off the medical register.
Outside yesterday's hearing at the GMC's office in London, parents of autistic children and campaigners waved placards and cheered as Dr Wakefield and his wife, Carmel, arrived - an unusual reversal when accused doctors are usually jeered or even attacked by aggrieved patients.
A 10ft banner read: "We're with Wakefield - crucified for helping sick kids." Others proclaimed: "For the sake of the children - leave these doctors alone." Carnations sent by supporters in the US - one for every child with autism - were lined up on the pavement.
David Thrower, from Warrington, who gave up work 10 years ago to care full-time for his 20-year-old son, said his child became autistic after having MMR at the age of four, claimed: "This case will be medicine's Watergate. The truth will come out in the end."
Fearing such allegations could damage confidence in MMR, a group of Royal Colleges and other medical bodies issued a statement yesterday saying that the vaccine "protects children" and that a "large body of scientific evidence" showed no link with autism. …