In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, along with 12 other coauthors, published in the prestigious UK medical journal The Lancet an epochal study documenting a possible link between autism and vaccines through 12 cases. The study was taken up by large groups of understandably anxious parents. It spawned a strong anti-vaccine movement in the US, Canada and the UK, which has resulted in significantly lower vaccination rates, along with increased epidemic rates and childhood deaths.
Unfortunately, the research for the Wakefield study could never be duplicated, and no other mainstream study so far has been able to show a link between autism and vaccines - the few that tried have been strongly criticized for small sample size and methology flaws. In fact, the cause of autism is still largely unknown today. The Wakefield study was highly controversial. Eventually, 10 of the co-authors withdrew their names from the study, and The Lancet itself retracted the original article. Last year, after the longest and most expensive investigation ever, the UK General Medical Council called Dr. Andrew Wakefield "irresponsible" and "dishonest", and recommended that his license to practice medicine in the UK be revoked.
It now appears that the original Wakefield study was not only careless, but also fraudulent. The prestigious British Medical Journal, rival to The Lancet, published this week an investigative report by journalist Brian Deer, reviewing the actual data used by the Wakefield study. The conclusions:
- Patients' selection had not been random but cherry-picked by anti-vaccine campaigners, who recruited the cases
- Study's summary of the case descriptions for every single case (all 12 patients) is contradicted by medical records or by parents' interviews
- Several patients were documented as having symptoms appearing within days of an MMR vaccination, when actual records or interviews show the appearance of symptoms months later - a critical piece of evidence for a causal link
- Study listed 9 patients with a diagnosis of regressive autism, where only one of the them was actually clearly diagnosed with the condition
- Study showed 12 patients are being "previously [to vaccination] normal" when 5 of the already showed symptoms prior to vaccination
- For 9 patients, normal colonic analysis results were changed to "non-specific colitis" after a "research review"
- Most of the parents were looking for financial compensation from vaccine manufacturers
The British Medical Journal concludes, in an editorial, that:
- Dr. Wakefield was responsible for the fraudulent representations;
- it is not possible to believe that Dr. Wakefield was simply wrong and incompetent, because misrepresentations are too gross, and all point in the same direction.
How should you deal with the consequences from that report? The vaccine hypothesis in the recent rise of autism has frightened many parents. It relied heavily upon an assumption of conspiracy between vaccine companies, public health authorities and doctors associations, and its most significant piece of research, however shaky, was the Wakefield study. With the vaccine hypothesis shattered, we believe that it is essential at this time to protect our children from the known dangers of epidemics. Check with your family doctor if your children have overdue vaccinations.
Want to read more about it? Try Science Blogs, WebMD Brian Deer Interview, WebMD FAQ, Time Magazine, CNN 1, CNN 2, US News, Seth Mnookin.com, Wall Street Journal, NewYork Times, MNN, CBS/ BNET, Washington Post, MedPage Today, AP, Consumerist, Slate, LA Times, Forbes, Mother Jones, New York Magazine, CNN Blog, Globe and Mail, The Age, New Scientist, PointofLaw, Left Brain/Right Brain UK 1, Left Brain/Right Brain UK 2, Left Brain/Right Brain UK 3, Nature, The Australian, NPR.
Unfortunately, even after this thorough debunking, many parents who believe in the Wakefield study do not appear to be changing their mind: Montreal Gazette, Age of Autism 1, Age of Autism 2, CNN.