Yesterday, the British Medical Journal reported that Andrew Wakefield — the physician who more than a decade ago spurred the controversy around vaccines and autism with his Lancet study — was part of an “elaborate fraud.”
Wakefield and co-authors published a study in 1998 that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism symptoms. Since then, scientists (including Wakefield) have not been able to replicate his findings, most of his co-authors have withdrawn their names from the findings (see the reasons below), and the paper was officially retracted from the Lancet in 2010.
But the paper was enough to scare many parents into opting out of vaccines.
According to CNN, in the UK, vaccination rates dropped to 80 percent by 2004 and measles cases went up sharply after that. In the US, “more measles cases were reported in 2008 than any other year since 1997” according to the CDC.
Here’s why BMJ says Wakefield’s science wasn’t just bad, it was fraudulent:
Wakefield did not disclose his financial ties and conflict of interest in the original 1998 paper. He was apparently being paid by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers — this is why his co-authors eventually stated they wanted their names withdrawn from the study.
Beyond that, of the 12 kids in the study (an incredibly small population sample to start), 5 had symptoms of developmental delays before they received the vaccine, says the editor-in-cheif of BMJ.
It took one poorly-executed and possibly deliberately-fraudulent study to spark the fear around vaccines and autism. And to my mind, autism is a perfect disorder for the anti-vaccine movement, because it’s so genetically complex and may have an environmental component in some cases (even though there is no evidence that vaccines are that environmental factor).
As more reports and findings like this come out, hopefully we’re deflating a harmful public health misconception bit by bit.