WEDNESDAY, Jan. 5 (HealthDay News) -- An in-depth investigation
just published in a prominent medical journal alleges that a
decade-long effort to link childhood vaccinations with autism was
really an elaborate hoax perpetuated by a British doctor who has
since been banned from practicing medicine in that country.
The doctor's original research, first published in 1998, turned
many parents away from immunizing their children, which some
experts now link to recent outbreaks of illnesses that had once
been well under control.
"The MMR [measles-mumps-rubella vaccine] scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the BMJ, which published details of the new investigation on Jan. 5, said in a statement. "Such clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare."
The story began with the publication in 1998 of a study led by
Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Appearing in the prestigious British medical
The Lancet, the report connected the MMR vaccine to autism and stomach problems in 12 children, a supposed new bowel-brain "syndrome."
That set off a worldwide furor, with many researchers condemning
the finding as shoddy science. But parents of children with autism
rallied around the main researcher. The result: immunization rates
in both the United States and Britain fell while the number of new
cases of measles -- one of the infections the MMR shot is designed
to thwart -- climbed.
After closely re-examining the data,
The Lancet issued a formal retraction of Wakefield's research
last year. In May of 2010, Britain's General Medical Council barred
Wakefield from practicing in the United Kingdom.
According to the new
BMJ report, Wakefield -- a gastroenterologist, not a
pediatrician or neurologist -- identified the new "syndrome" before
he even began to collect data. By his account, the MMR vaccine
caused both gut problems and regressive autism in children.
BMJ investigation alleges that this hypothesis only emerged
after Wakefield had been retained, with compensation, to work
on a lawsuit to sue the maker of the vaccine.
Lancet study, Wakefield described the experiences of 12
children who supposedly had regressive autism, where a child seems
to be developing normally but then regresses.
However, according to the
BMJ report, only one child in the sample was diagnosed with
this form of autism, and three of the 12 didn't have any autism
diagnosis at all.
Nor did the children come from a random sample, as Wakefield had
claimed. According to the
BMJ article, all participants were selected based on having
symptoms consistent with the "syndrome" and some seemed to have
been recruited by anti-vaccination activists.
And the report further alleges that when children's symptoms
didn't fit the hypothesis, timelines were fudged so it looked as if
autism symptoms developed soon after MMR vaccination, even when
parents and others said that the children were showing signs of
prior to the shot.
In some cases where Wakefield claimed that problems emerged
after the vaccine, he shrank the timeline so it would look as if
they emerged within days, as opposed to months after, according to
BMJ report. And gastrointestinal symptoms were also made to
appear more significant than they were.
One girl who appeared to have slowed development turned out to
have a coarctation of the aorta, a genetic condition in which the
aorta leading out of the heart narrows, the report stated, and once
that was fixed her speech and behavior resumed at a normal
"This is about as unethical as you can get," said Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a child neurologist with Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, University Hospitals Case Medical Center, in Cleveland.
"It's a very, very sad story. It was sad enough that the data in this paper was published and influenced scientists and governments and families to make decisions that just weren't right. But now to find out that the data was actually falsified makes it even worse," added Keith A. Young, vice chair for research in the department of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.
"This really, really is one of the worst scenarios that's ever happened with scientific misconduct," he said.
And besides harming those children who got sick after not
receiving a vaccine, the alleged fraud may have even set back
autism research, experts noted.
"We had a measles epidemic in Britain, a drop in immunization rates in [the United States]. I personally know of children who were brain-damaged as a consequence of their parents deferring immunization as a result of this concern," Wiznitzer said. At the same time, he said, "[autism] research monies were diverted to disprove a hypothesis that was never proven [in the first place] rather than invested in exploring issues that would be of benefit to the public and to children with the condition."
BMJ investigators showed study data to parents who were
involved in Wakefield's study, they said many parents were shocked
and insisted that his versions of their children's cases were
patently wrong. For instance, Wakefield sometimes claimed that the
child's development was normal before the vaccine when, in some
cases, it was not.
"[They're] claiming that he altered data and, from a science standpoint, you can't get any worse than to deliberately and knowingly change the data so that it fits your preconceived notion," Wiznitzer said.
Although the author of the
BMJ piece, British investigative journalist Brian Deer, seems
to suggest that greed motivated Wakefield to act as he did,
Wiznitzer said that may not be the whole story.
"I think he truly believes what he's doing," Wiznitzer said.
As for Wakefield, his Web site shows him as currently living in
Austin, Texas, promoting a book published last year,
Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines, The Truth Behind the
Tragedy, and going on speaking engagements.
Speaking in May on NBC's
Today show, soon after British authorities stripped him of
his right to practice medicine, Wakefield called the ban "a little
bump in the road" and said his research would continue. "I am most
certainly not going away," he said.
Find out the facts on autism at the
U.S. National Institutes of Health.
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