It’s unfortunate but true that sometimes the hard facts of science don’t turn out to be so grounded in reality after all. Scientific fraud is certainly not new, but manipulation of medical data is always troubling, and potentially deadly, for the public.
That’s the case with a controversial 1998 paper published in the Lancet by Andrew Wakefield, a former intestinal specialist at Royal Free Hospital in London. This week, the editors of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) penned a commentary calling the study “an elaborate fraud,” and accompanied the charge with an in-depth study exposing apparent manipulations of the data by Wakefield to bolster his argument that the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine was linked to autism. (More on Time.com: Vaccination Rates Drop in Wealthier Kids: The Autism Rumors Take a Toll)
Summarizing nearly eight years of investigation into Wakefield’s assertions that the vaccine caused intestinal disorders that correlated with symptoms of autism, journalist Brian Deer of the Sunday Times of London was able to compare the scientist’s descriptions of the vaccinated children in the paper to the government’s National Health Service medical records of the youngsters requisitioned by England’s medical watch-dogs, the General Medical Council. What Deer and a panel of regulators found was fraud. “No case was free of misreporting or alteration,” writes Deer in the BMJ. “Taken together, NHS records cannot be reconciled with what was published, to such devastating effect, in the journal [in 1998].”
That devastating effect was the injury of hundreds of children, and even the deaths of some after they became infected with mumps, measles or rubella due to the fact that they were not vaccinated against MMR, and fueling of a worldwide suspicion of vaccines among parents. “That paper killed children,” says Dr. Paul Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a long-time critic of the dangers of the anti-vaccine movement who has written a book on the subject, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. (More on Time.com: Study: Living Near a Highway May Contribute to Autism Risk)
Since 2003, Deer has revealed 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. In his latest investigation, Deer describes how many of the 12 children in Wakefield’s small study were not recruited from the community at large, as most are in order to avoid biases, but rather came referred to the study by parent advocates convinced that their children had been damaged by vaccines, thus potentially skewing the results.
While Wakefield claimed that eight of the 12 children began showing signs of autism and gastrointestinal disorders days after being vaccinated, three, says Deer, were not diagnosed with regressive autism at all, and five already had documented developmental issues, possibly prior to their immunization. What’s more, the comparison of Wakefield’s descriptions with the children’s medical records shows that the autism symptoms for many began months, not days after the shot, thus weakening Wakefield’s argument that the two might be connected.
When Deer exposed the fact that Wakefield had received payment from the personal injury attorney to help the lawyer’s case, 10 of his 13 co-authors on the 1998 paper retracted their involvement with the work. In his book, Callous Disregard, Wakefield maintains that he informed his colleagues and the dean of the medical school of his involvement as a medical expert. As questions about his research grew, however, the Lancet retracted the paper last February and Wakefield lost his medical license in May. (More on Time.com: Study: More Hope for a Brain Scan for Autism)
Undeterred, he moved to the US where among anti-vaccine advocates, he remains a hero, appearing on television to defend his theory and penning his book with a forward by Jenny McCarthy, the actress who claims her son developed autism from vaccinations, and maintains that her own non-medical therapies have cured him of his symptoms. These supporters continue to question the role that vaccines may play in triggering autism in some children. Barbara Loe Fisher, who co-founded the National Vaccine Information Center as a advocacy group for vaccine safety, responded in a email with the following statement—“[Dr. Wakefield’s] finding of an association between vaccination and developmental delays in some children has been expanded upon in subsequent studies published in medical journals. Research into the potential link between vaccination and regression of health in some children continues and should continue to answer outstanding questions about the impact of vaccination on brain and immune function.”
Officials at Autism Speaks, who commented on the BMJ’s study in a statement, note that more research is needed to fully investigate whether some children may be genetically predisposed to developing autism symptoms following vaccination, for whatever reason. But the organization also stresses that “[Many] studies provide evidence against the hypothesis that either the MMR vaccine or thimerosal [a mercury-based additive to immunizations] is linked to the increased prevalence of autism. Thus, given the present state of the science, the proven benefits of vaccinating a child to protect them against serious disease outweigh the hypothesized risk that vaccinations might cause autism.” (More on Time.com: New Version of an Old Drug Could Treat Autism (and Addiction Too))
That position is echoed by the strong voice of the BMJ’s editorial board, which asked “Who perpetuated this fraud? There is no doubt it was Wakefield.” The evidence revealed in the paper should be a welcome ally for pediatricians, who, thanks to Wakefield’s study, have been fielding questions from concerned parents about whether or not they should vaccinate their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control recommend routine and complete vaccinations for all US youngsters, and while the new revelations of fraud are unlikely to change the mind of those who are convinced that vaccinations are a bad idea, they should help most parents rest assured that the shots are actually improving, and not harming their children’s health.