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Journal retracts pivotal study linking vaccination to autism

by Daniel Peake
Feb 03, 2010

The British journal Lancet retracted its publication of the most influential study to date linking a childhood vaccination to autism.

The journal took the unusual action Tuesday, 12 years after the article unleashed a heated anti-vaccination movement. The doctor behind the study falsified data and engaged in several unethical practices, according to the General Medical Council, a panel that oversees British doctors and medical practices.

Led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, the controversial 1998 study published in the esteemed medical journal Lancet has stirred controversy and debate ever since. The medical community – including 10 of the 13 authors of the research paper – rejected the validity of the findings years ago.

“We fully retract this paper from the published record,” read a statement issued Tuesday by the Lancet editors. The decision came after years of pressure from various professionals and competing medical journals.

But vaccination critics maintain that the connection is real and praise Wakefield for his research. “He’s got a great conscience and a great study,” said Dr. Andy Maniotis, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an outspoken critic of vaccinations. “Vaccines are the the most efficient way to spread disease.”

The General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of more than 30 unethical charges committed in conducting the study. The council could revoke his medical license to practice in Britain but has taken no action. Wakefield currently resides in Texas.

“The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust,” Wakefield said in a statement.

Aside from the discredited study, little other scientific evidence shows a connection between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. A 2008 study, conducted by Columbia University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mimicked the conditions of the original research and found no link.

“We want to remind parents that vaccines are very safe and effective and they save lives,” the CDC stated in a response to the retraction of Wakefield’s study by Lancet. “It builds on the overwhelming body of research by the world's leading scientists that concludes there is no link between MMR vaccine and autism.”

The United Kingdom and United States saw significant drops in vaccination rates and a subsequent measles resurgence in the years after the study’s publication. Lawsuits ensued. Numerous small but outspoken anti-vaccination groups still actively support Wakefield’s study, and many parents refuse to have their children vaccinated.

A 2004 investigation by the Royal Free and University College in England didn't identify any wrongdoing, which reignited the debate and further propagated the study’s findings. But “hospital records and other sources” refuted the 2004 findings in an investigation last week, the General Medical Council determined.

The council found that Wakefield was “dishonest,” violated research ethics and acted with a “callous disregard” toward children, including paying kids at his son’s birthday party to give blood for research and later performing invasive tests on some of them.

“Dr. Wakefield did something that wasn’t illegal, it just doesn’t look good,” said Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, the medical director for Homefirst Health Services in Chicago and host of a weekly Chicago radio show covering medical issues. “But that doesn’t invalidate his work, which I think is perfectly good.”

“The problem is we have a theory that is unfounded: Vaccination makes the public healthier,” Eisenstein said. He said that that the doctors, drug companies and government involved in the multi-trillion dollar vaccine industry manipulate vaccine data to suit their interests.

“Dr. Wakefield is not against vaccines,” said Eisenstein, who said he knows Wakefield well. “He’s vaccinated his own children with everything except MMR.”

An article should be retracted if the information is unreliable, either due to misconduct or unintentional error, according to the Committee on Publication Ethics, a U.K. charity with almost 5,000 members who are mostly editors of medical journals."Retraction should usually be reserved for publications that are so seriously flawed (for whatever reason) that their findings or conclusions should not be relied upon," the group said.