Vaccine-Autism Scare: Researcher Who Started It All Falsified Data?

The British Medical Journal alleges that Dr. Andrew Wakefield deliberately falsified his infamous Lancet study

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In 1998, a study in the medical journal Lancet claimed to have found a link between childhood vaccines and autism. Though the piece was formally retracted last July, popular belief in the vaccine-autism connection persists (and parents have resisted immunizing their children as a result). Now, a new article and editorial published in the British Medical Journal argues that the original study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, may have deliberately falsified data in his research in an "elaborate fraud." In his study, Wakefield found implicit evidence that vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella caused autism in children, which led to skepticism among parents about vaccinating their children for these diseases and inspiring celebrities like Jenny McCarthy to openly question "all credible research on what does and does not cause autism and whether it can be treated."

The BMJ's new editorial asserts that their investigation found "clear evidence" that Andrew Wakefield deliberately falsified evidence in his original study. Could it have been an honest mistake? "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 BMJ editors find. Here's how the British Medical Journal's assertions are rippling through the media:

  • In His Defense  Andrew Wakefield responds to the BMJ's claims through CNN, saying that "he has been the target of 'a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any attempt to investigate valid vaccine safety concerns.'" CNN Wire Staff quote journalist David Kirby (a friend of Andrew Wakefield) saying that "Wakefield not only has denied falsifying data, he has said he had no way to do so." Kirby says, "I have known [Wakefield] for a number of years. He does not strike me as a charlatan or a liar ... I personally find it hard to believe that he did that."
  • It Should Be the Last Nail in the Coffin  "Can we just be done with this autism/MMR link once and for all?" asks The Washington Post's Jennifer LaRue Huget. "It's been such a huge distraction, likely diverting energy and funds from the research that could detect autism's true causes, and has led to many kids' needlessly coming down with a disease that should be entirely preventable. Let's put this behind us and move on."
  • 'Studies Have Found No Link Between Autism and the MMR Vaccine' reports The Wall Street Journal's health blogger Katherine Hobson, who points toward a 2008 Columbia University study that found "no connection" between the vaccine and autism in kids. "Our results are inconsistent with a causal role for MMR vaccine as a trigger or exacerbator of either G.I. difficulties or autism," said one of the Columbia researchers, Mady Hornig, at the time. Still, Wakefield's influence has been significant, notes Hobson. "Vaccination rates went down in many countries following the Lancet paper’s publication and subsequent to-do. Meantime, measles outbreaks have been linked to parents who didn't immunize their kids."
  • And Yet Wakefield Is Still Popular in "the increasingly lunatic vaccines-cause-autism movement," blogs an incredulous David Whelan at Forbes. "Look for fraud charges to quickly follow the latest revelations out of the BMJ," he figures. "If that happens U.S. authorities should expeditiously remove the dangerous doctor before he can do more damage to vulnerable children and their misguided families."
  • This Won't Make a Difference (and Media Are Partly Responsible)  "Dr. Wakefield's supporters will continue to see it all as a huge cover-up and the BMJ as a stooge for Big Pharma, because everyone's a stooge for Big Pharma when it comes to MMR and autism," writes Tom Chivers at The Telegraph.
Grieving parents looking around for someone or something to blame for their child's autism will still see a link between the vaccine and the condition, because one apparently happened shortly after the other, and that's how human brains work. And in a way it doesn't help, because the more we can blame Dr Wakefield for the MMR scare, the more the press can continue to pretend that they didn't play a role, and that they were scammed along with everyone else.
  • There's a Problem With How the Press Reports on Science  Andrea James, author of a Wikipedia article on Science by Press Conference, blogs at Boing Boing about the lack of critical thinking by science reporters. Using the publicity surrounding Wakefield's original study as an example, she explains:
Wakefield found an audience in people looking for something to blame for autism, and he sparked an anti-vaccination movement that got further traction through celebrities with access to the media. While journalists have a responsibility to report new findings, they also have a responsibility to make sure that these new findings are reported accurately and in a manner that is not sensationalistic. PROTIP: If someone is convening a press conference to announce their scientific discovery, whether it's a perpetual motion device or the first human clone, it's advisable to ask why they seem more focused on publicity than science. In the meantime, thanks to the media, "vaccination rates have hit record lows here in America, and measles rates have skyrocketed accordingly."

(At The Guardian in September, Martin Robbins created a humorous, yet revealing, mock article explicitly detailing the lazy conventions that the science press routinely falls prey to.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.