Vaccine-Autism Link Broken

A controversial, decade-old study is retracted and called "utterly false"

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Do vaccines for children cause autism? That question has vexed parents since a 1998 study suggested there was a connection. But on Tuesday,  Lancet, the medical journal that published the article, fully retracted the study, calling it "utterly false."

Some are greeting the retraction with a sort of grim joy--for them, the victory comes much too late. Others, reflecting on the furious debate, lament the the politicization of science. Still more say the retraction is unlikely to change the minds of countless parents who cling to hope that autism--if caused by vaccines--may be reversable. Here's how the massive opinion swell is breaking down:

'12 Years Too Late'
  • 'Finally, Finally' Monica Potts at The American Prospect points to the study's role in raising rates of "diseases we know definitely hurt children, like measles, in developed countries that had long seen them disappear." Like many, she doubts the retraction will "change the mind of the true believers."
  • A Belated 'Mea Culpa,' agrees The Wall Street Journal, whose editors are aghast at the magazine's earlier mere partial retraction in 2004, "when it was revealed that Dr. Wakefield had been paid to conduct his study on children who were clients of a lawyer ginning up a lawsuit." This case shows, they argue, "how even reputable publications can become conduits for junk science when political causes run hot." They mention the climate science scandal, and assert the importance of "scrupulous" standards.
  • 'Never Forget What's at Stake Here,' writes Discover's Phil Plait in an impassioned post, saying that since it would be inappropriate for a professional research journal to tear the scientist to shreds, "it's up to the blogs." They should
call out Wakefield [the study's lead author] for his tireless efforts in creating of the modern antivaccination movement, which is becoming so successful that measles, mumps, pertussis, and other preventable diseases are on the rise again ... Of course, that won't even slow Wakefield or the antivaxxers. They don't care for the real world, based on evidence and fact. They are, for all intents and purposes, religious zealots now, believing in Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, and the rest with such fervor that there is literally no amount of evidence that can ever sway them.

The Tricky Politics

  • Compare to Climategate, suggests The American Spectator's Paul Chesser, among others. The vaccine story is everywhere in "mainstream American media," yet the climate science controversy, he feels, was reported slowly.
  • Jenny McCarthy Will Debunk this 'Bogus Retraction,' predicts DougJ at Balloon Juice. Jenny McCarthy is one of the leading anti-vaccine activists. Monica Potts argues one issue with the study was how it "helped perpetuate the idea that people like Jenny McCarthy know what they're talking about, and that personal perceptions are good substitutes for research and evidence."
  • Science, Politicized Ace at Ace of Spades HQ muses that, as the retraction was based on the unethical acquisition of data rather than the actual fudging of data, the matter seems "unresolved," leaving anti-vaccine activists to suggest the retraction was political. That "might even be true," he argues. "The left doesn't like the 'anti-science' vibe they believe is going on with the MMR-autism link; they have this weird desire to establish scientists as some kind of technocratic fourth branch of government ... they also hate the idea that vaccine avoidance is a much bigger phenomenon on the right than the left."

The Tricky Emotions

  • Not About Politics, but Parents Dave Anderson, parent of an autistic child, writes at Newshoggers that the parents in his child's "play-group are split down the middle" on the vaccine question. "The parents are a lot like me, in their late 20s, early 30s, well educated, familiar and comfortable with science, but not necessarily daily science practitioners; we are the interested amateurs."
  • And That's Why the Controversy Will Remain, suggests Arthur Allen at Slate. "It is difficult to challenge a mother's knowledge of her own child," and the irrationality about vaccines stems from very human hopes and fears:
Victory in a lawsuit is an obvious [benefit], especially for middle-class parents struggling to care for and educate their unruly and unresponsive kids. Another apparent benefit is the notion, espoused by a network of alternative-medical practitioners and supplement pushers, that if vaccines are the cause, the damage can be repaired, the child made whole.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.