Rethinking Healthcare

Research linking vaccines to autism is an "elaborate fraud"

Research linking vaccines to autism is an "elaborate fraud"

Posting in Science

The author of a retracted paper, which said that childhood vaccines cause autism, has now been called out for deliberating falsifying data.

In a controversial 1998 medical report, researcher Andrew Wakefield argued that childhood vaccines caused autism.

An anti-vaccination movement ensued against the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine that so many of us had to get for school. Drops in the vaccine were severe, which may have led to (sometimes fatal) outbreaks in unvaccinated children.

Over the last few years, various pieces of evidence began to tear away at the ‘antivax’ crusade. Ten of the original 13 co-authors on Wakefield’s study in the Lancet retracted the paper’s interpretations in 2004. "We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient," they wrote.

About a year ago, the Lancet retracted the paper completely, calling several elements of it “incorrect” and “false.”

This week, a British Medical Journal expose calls Wakefield a “fraud.”

The since-retracted paper looked at 12 children who, Wakefield claimed, were fine until they were vaccinated.

According to journalist Brian Deer – who penned the multipart feature on Wakefield after a 7-year investigation – 3 of the children weren’t diagnosed with regressive autism at all, and 5 actually had previously documented developmental problems. And sometimes the symptoms began months, not days, after the shots, weakening Wakefield’s link between the two.

Deer also writes that Wakefield was paid by a personal injury attorney eager to collect damages from vaccine manufacturers for alleged health damages suffered by “vaccine-damaged” children [Time].

In a BMJ editorial accompanying Deer’s series, the editors write:

Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross.

“The MMR scare was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud,” concludes BMJ editor Fiona Godlee.

“We hope that declaring the paper a fraud will close that door for good,” the editors add.

But will it?

"This scared people and it's hard to unscare them," says Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. “Until medicine can step up and say, 'We understand the cause of autism,' they may never be assured.”

President of the National Autism Association, Wendy Fournier, says: “A character assassination initiative against those who look for answers only serves to stunt medical progress for our children and perpetuate unnecessary public health risks.”

Wakefield continues to defend himself. “The study is not a lie," he told CNN. He called Deer "a hit man" brought in to take him down.

Deer's feature appeared in BMJ on Wednesday.

Image by hitthatswitch

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure