For more than a decade, parents and medical professionals hotly debated whether routine vaccinations caused autism in children. However, the British Medical Journal reported yesterday that the claim, made by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 study, was an “elaborate fraud.” The six million-word investigation concludes that Wakefield deliberately altered or misrepresented the medical histories of all 12 patients used in the analysis. For example, the study said that some children would receive a vaccine, then show signs of autism just days later, but the investigation found that Wakefield made up many of the dates reported. Often, children showed signs of autism before the vaccine was ever administered or months after the fact. So, what do you think?
The Lancet, which originally published the study, retracted the paper in February 2010, and Britain revoked Wakefield’s medical license last May after a panel found that he conducted his research without approval by the ethics committee and ordered invasion and unnecessary procedures for the children involved.
But the study has clearly damaged public health; it led to a sharp drop in the number of children receiving the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps, and rubella. Rates in Britain dropped as low at 80 percent in 2004, and the number of children diagnosed with measles went up. In the United States, more cases of measles were reported in 2008 than in any other year since 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and more than 90 percent of those infected had not been vaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown.
Uncertainty about the study began several years ago after Wakefield failed to reproduce his results and other researchers were unable to match them. Most of the study’s co-authors withdrew their names in 2004 after it was discovered that Wakefield had been paid to conduct the study by a law firm that intended to sue vaccine manufacturers. Despite the mounds of criticism, Wakefield continues to staunchly defend his research.
Image © Brian Hoskins