Are we finally ready to close the door on the much-disputed link between the MMR vaccine and autism?

On January 30, Britain’s General Medical Council ruled that Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, had acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” in conducting his research that established a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. And yesterday, the British medical journal Lancet finally retracted the resulting 1998 study authored by Wakefield that helped drive MMR vaccination rates in the U.K. down to the point where in 2008, measles was officially declared “endemic” in the country.

The Lancet’s editor, Richard Horton, told The Guardian “It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false,” he said. “I feel I was deceived.”

The GMC investigation, entailing 197 days of evidence, submission and deliberation  between July 2007 and  January 2010, exposed an unscrupulous researcher who falsified data, used sloppy laboratory techniques and subjected children to painful and potentially harmful medical tests like lumbar punctures and multiple colonoscopies to try and prove his notion that MMR vaccinations cause bowel disease and autism. Wakefield even went so far as to offer children attending his son’s birthday party £5 to donate blood samples.

The investigation of Wakefield and his shoddy and unethical research methods began in 2004 when British journalist Brian Deer began talking with parents of the 12 children involved in Wakefield’s study and reviewing medical records. Since then, Deer has dedicated countless hours and words to setting the record straight about Wakefield’s work—including the finding that his research was funded by lawyers representing parents who planned to sue vaccine makers for damages.

Click here to see a collection of Deer’s articles in the Sunday Times over the years that continued to drive this case even when Lancet editors refused to revisit the research. In a synopsis of the investigation Deer writes:

“Although in January 2010 a UK General Medical Council [GMC] panel concluded a mammoth, multi-part hearing with findings that Wakefield’s conduct and research was both ‘dishonest’ and ‘unethical’, the published study’s principal ‘finding’ was an alleged association between MMR vaccination and what the Wakefield group claimed to be the sudden onset of developmental disorders in eight – two-in-three – of the 12 children.

“This ‘finding’, and massive publicity that the Royal Free hospital and medical school encouraged for it  launched a worldwide scare over the vaccine’s safety, triggering falls in immunisation rates, outbreaks of potentially fatal or disabling diseases, and an epidemic of self-recrimination among parents of autistic children.”

There is a lesson here that is especially pertinent in these media-saturated times. A study like Wakefield’s—hyped by a credible medical institution, and reported uncritically by the 24-hour news outlets, the blogosphere, social media sites and Twitter—can quickly become accepted dogma with dire consequences to public health. In just a short amount of time, Wakefield’s theories of how MMR causes damage to the gut and subsequently, autism spectrum disorder became the basis for anti-vaccine efforts both in Europe and the U.S. that continue unabated today.

Where is Andrew Wakefield now? He is currently Executive Director at the Thoughtful House, a center for autistic children in Texas. He and his fellow researchers at this center continue to plumb the connection between bowel disease and autism. Wakefield’s supporters–most of whom are parents of autistic children– still stand by his work, accusing the GMC of “censorship” and citing evidence of a nefarious plan to silence those researchers who stand behind the vaccine-autism link. It’s really depressing that these parents—perhaps grasping for straws–continue to support someone who not only is dishonest, but intentionally subjected small children to painful medical tests for no good reason.

Autism continues to be an enormous public health issue in this country and elsewhere around the world. In the U.S. it affects an estimated 1 in 100 births and is growing at a rate of 10-17% year. It is easy to understand why parents of affected children would welcome news about the cause and prevention of this debilitating disorder. But over the last decade we have seen scarce resources squandered on study after study disproving the connection between vaccines and autism and disproving questionable
treatments like extreme diets and chelation therapy.

In the end, the true story is that researchers are still at the basic stages of figuring out what really causes autism. It’s likely that there will be several, if not many, causes of the disorder. Obama’s new budget has
provided $222 million (an increase of $16 million) for studying Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Much of this funding is going towards basic research: “innovative approaches to defining the genetic and
environmental factors that contribute to ASD, investigate epigenomic changes in the brain, and accelerate clinical trials of novel pharmacological and behavioral interventions.”

Let’s hope that ultimately, the Wakefield experience will have a positive influence on the autism field—leading to greater oversight, more rigorous research and a marginalization of the junk science that has dominated public debate for too long.

Share on Twitter

3 Responses for “Autism and the MMR: Finally a Retraction”

  1. mark says:

    Are we finally ready to close the door on the much-disputed link between the MMR vaccine and autism?
    just because you can’t prove one, doesn’t mean it’s not connected – high fevers from vaccines can result in brain damage, diagnosed in the autism spectrum…i don’t need proof; my grown brother has been institutionalized most of his life after being a healthy 2-year old – no one’s in favor of false research, but there is no doubt in any family of kids that have suffered this result.

  2. MD as HELL says:

    Evidence-based medicine at its worst and most feared. Can we also say “climate change”? There is no such thing as “settled science”.

  3. Lee says:

    The role of the lawyers in helping should not be ignored here.Their actions deserve to be called into question. Read the article…
    http://marketsandculture.blogspot.com/2011/01/mmr-vaccine-autism-andrew-wakefield-and.html
    ..it is astonishing how many millions of public money were wasted by their actions.

Leave a Reply

FROM THE VAULT

The Power of Small Why Doctors Shouldn't Be Healers Big Data in Healthcare. Good or Evil? Depends on the Dollars. California's Proposition 46 Narrow Networking
MASTHEAD STUFF

MATTHEW HOLT
Founder & Publisher

JOHN IRVINE
Executive Editor

JONATHAN HALVORSON
Editor

JOE FLOWER
Contributing Editor

MICHAEL MILLENSON
Contributing Editor

ALEX EPSTEIN
Director of Digital Media

MICHELLE NOTEBOOM Business Development

MUNIA MITRA, MD
Clinical Medicine

Vikram Khanna
Editor-At-Large, Wellness

THCB FROM A-Z

FOLLOW US ON TWITTER
@THCBStaff

WHERE IN THE WORLD WE ARE

The Health Care Blog (THCB) is based in San Francisco. We were founded in 2004 by Matthew Holt and John Irvine.

MEDIA REQUESTS

Interview Requests + Bookings. We like to talk. E-mail us.

BLOGGING
Yes. We're looking for bloggers. Send us your posts.

STORY TIPS
Breaking health care story? Drop us an e-mail.

CROSSPOSTS

We frequently accept crossposts from smaller blogs and major U.S. and International publications. You'll need syndication rights. Email a link to your submission.

WHAT WE'RE LOOKING FOR

Op-eds. Crossposts. Columns. Great ideas for improving the health care system. Pitches for healthcare-focused startups and business.Write ups of original research. Reviews of new healthcare products and startups. Data-driven analysis of health care trends. Policy proposals. E-mail us a copy of your piece in the body of your email or as a Google Doc. No phone calls please!

THCB PRESS

Healthcare focused e-books and videos for distribution via THCB and other channels like Amazon and Smashwords. Want to get involved? Send us a note telling us what you have in mind. Proposals should be no more than one page in length.

HEALTH SYSTEM $#@!!!
If you've healthcare professional or consumer and have had a recent experience with the U.S. health care system, either for good or bad, that you want the world to know about, tell us about it. Have a good health care story you think we should know about? Send story ideas and tips to editor@thehealthcareblog.com.

REPRINTS Questions on reprints, permissions and syndication to ad_sales@thehealthcareblog.com.

WHAT WE COVER

HEALTHCARE, GENERAL

Affordable Care Act
Business of Health Care
National health policy
Life on the front lines
Practice management
Hospital managment
Health plans
Prevention
Specialty practice
Oncology
Cardiology
Geriatrics
ENT
Emergency Medicine
Radiology
Nursing
Quality, Costs
Residency
Research
Medical education
Med School
CMS
CDC
HHS
FDA
Public Health
Wellness

HIT TOPICS
Apple
Analytics
athenahealth
Electronic medical records
EPIC
Design
Accountable care organizations
Meaningful use
Interoperability
Online Communities
Open Source
Privacy
Usability
Samsung
Social media
Tips and Tricks
Wearables
Workflow
Exchanges

EVENTS

TedMed
HIMSS South x South West
Health 2.0
WHCC
AHIP
AHIMA
Log in - Powered by WordPress.