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H1N1 (Swine Flu): The Lancet Retracts Flawed Study Linking Autism to MMR Vaccine

February 2, 2010

The study, that helped fuel global anti-vaccine sentiment, has been revoked by medical journal The Lancet.  In addition, a U.K. regulatory panel has ruled that the British doctor who led the study suggesting a link between the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly.” The panel represents the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates the medical profession. It ruled on whether Andrew Wakefield, MD, and two colleagues acted properly in carrying out their research, and not on whether MMR vaccine has anything to do with autism. The Lancet published the controversial paper by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues in 1998.

British parents abandoned the vaccine in droves, leading to a resurgence of measles. Subsequent studies found no proof the vaccine is connected to autism.

In 2004, ten of the study’s 13 authors renounced the study’s conclusions, and The Lancet has previously said it should never have published the research. “We fully retract this paper from the published record,” its editors said in a statement February 2, 2010.

In the ruling, the GMC used strong language to condemn the methods used by Wakefield in conducting the study. In the study, published 12 years ago, Wakefield and colleagues suggested there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Their study included only 12 children, but wide media coverage set off a panic among parents.  It was later discovered that Wakefield — prior to designing the study — had accepted payment from lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers for causing autism.

The GMC’s Fitness to Practise panel heard evidence and submissions for 148 days over two and a half years, hearing from 36 witnesses. It then spent 45 days deciding the outcome of the hearing. Besides Wakefield, two former colleagues went before the panel -John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch. They were all found to have broken guidelines.

The disciplinary hearing found Wakefield showed a “callous disregard” for the suffering of children and abused his position of trust. He’d also “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant.” He’d taken blood samples from children attending his son’s birthday party in return for money, and was later filmed joking about it at a conference. He’d also failed to disclose he’d received money for advising lawyers acting for parents who claimed their children had been harmed by the triple vaccine.

Wakefield now works in the U.S. at an autism center called Thoughtful House, which he helped found. In a statement on its web site the center states that it is "disappointed" by the GMC decision, believing the charges against the three doctors were "unfounded and unfair." On the web site's "frequently asked questions" the center asks: "Has Dr. Wakefield been accused of any breach of medical ethics while serving as the Executive Director of Thoughtful House?" The answer is "Absolutely not."

The government and medical experts continue to stress that the MMR vaccine is safe. The MMR triple vaccine was licensed in the U.S. in 1971 and first used in the U.K. in 1988. Over 100 countries now use it, and it is estimated that more than 500 million doses have been administered.

At the peak of the MMR scare in 2002, there were 1,531 articles about MMR in the U.K. national press; in 1998 there had been just 86. Between 2001 and 2003, U.K. opinion polls showed that the percent of people believing the MMR vaccine to be safe dropped from over 70% to just over 50%. U.K. Health Protection Agency figures show measles incidence increased dramatically following the drop in the number of children being vaccinated. The number of confirmed cases between 2007 and 2008 was 2,349, roughly equal to the combined total for the previous eleven years.

Studies that refute the autism connection:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2010 12:58

    Dr. Andrew Wakefield NEVER claimed in his paper published in The Lancet in 1998 that the MMR vaccine caused autism. That hypothesis was never proposed, nor tested, in his case report published by The Lancet. Wakefield was merely reporting that he found chronic enterocolitis in autistic children.

    BTW, two authors of the paper who are not “retracting” are two other highly experienced gastroenterologists: Professor John Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch (perhaps the preeminent academic gastroenterologist in the world).

    Lost in the media circus that has erupted around Dr. Wakefield, is the fact that the case report reads, quote, “We did not prove an association between measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and the syndrome (autistic enterocolitis) described.” The Lancet case report ends with a call for additional research. [Which is entirely appropriate.] “We have identified a chronic enterocolitis in children that may be related to neuropsychiatric dysfunction. In most cases, onset of symptoms was after measles, mumps, and rubella immunisation. Further investigations are needed to examine this syndrome and its possible relation to this vaccine.”

    If the case report by Wakefield/Walker-Smith/Murch did NOT claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism, what did some of the co-authors retract in 2004 (and now The Lancet editorial staff)? It seems nothing. Some of the original co-authors partially retracted an interpretation despite the fact that it never existed in the case report. The co-author’s partial retraction reads, “We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of such a link was raised and consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed upon these findings in the paper, according to precedent.”

    In sum, 10 of 13 authors issued a retraction of the interpretation that MMR is a possible trigger for the syndrome described. This remains a possibility and a possibility cannot be retracted.

    The witch hunt against Dr. Wakefield and his esteemed colleagues is intuitional medicine and big pharma politics at its worst. [Notice not one single parent of the children involved in the case report have filed a single complaint against Dr. Wakefield. Quite to the contrary, they have all stated their unanimous support for Dr. Wakefield and stated uniformly that he was a “caring” and “wonderful” doctor.]

    Let medical researchers do their research. Let them do their job. And let’s follow the SCIENCE.

  2. February 4, 2010 13:48

    I can’t believe that it is several years since Wakefield’s co-authors recanted their statements and findings before the study was removed from medical journals. It just seems this should have happened a bit sooner.

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