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.