Who would ever have thought that a medical article aimed for a medical professional audience would have such a profound effect on a layman’s attitude towards vaccines? I mean, thousands and thousands of medical and scientific articles are published every year. So what made this paper so influential and yet so controversial?
1998: Twelve years ago, a team of researchers from the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine in London led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield wrote a paper entitled “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.”
Sounds innocuous enough, if rather a bit too much of doctor speak to interest the general public. The objective of the study was to investigate “a consecutive series of children with chronic enterocolitis and regressive developmental disorder.” A total of 12 children were involved in the study, with ages ranging from 3 to 10 years old, 11 of whom were boys. Nine of the children had autism, one had disintegrative psychosis, and two had possible postviral or vaccinal encephalitis. Based on study results, the study authors concluded that the gastrointestinal and developmental disorders in these children were associated with environmental triggers including the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine.
To say that the paper attracted public attention was an understatement. Some of its effects are as follows:
- Major concerns about the safety of childhood vaccinations (not only MMR) among parents and doctors
- Decrease in vaccination rates in the UK from 92% down to 80%
- Strengthening of the anti-vaccination movement, which rapidly spread from Europe to North America and the rest of the world
- Compromising the goals of global vaccination and eradication of childhood diseases, especially MMR
- More recently, frequent outbreaks of once rare childhood diseases including measles and pertussis; a 70% increase in measles in 2008 was reported in England and Wales, mostly due to unvaccinated children
Over the years, scientists and health experts questioned the credibility of the paper. For one thing, the sample size is very small. How can data from 12 children be representative of the millions who received the MMR vaccine? Other experts think the analysis and interpretation of the data was not appropriate and the research methods were “flawed”.
2004: The majority of the authors (10 out of 14) who wrote the original paper sat together and issued a partial retraction, specifically “retraction of an interpretation.” This did not include Wakefield.
There were also allegations of conflicts of interests and unethical behaviour on the part of the researchers. In the end, UK’s General Medical Council (GMC) decided to investigate.
In the meantime, celebrities which include Jenny McCarthy and Ophra Winfrey joined the debate. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, openly preaches against vaccination.
2010: The investigation of the GMC showed the following to be untrue:
- that the study participants were “consecutively referred”
- that the study was “approved” by the local ethics committee
and led to the following conclusions:
Wakefield, who now works and resides in the US, may lose his medical professional license in the UK.
Thus twelve years later after its publication, the controversial paper was fully retracted by the Lancet “from the published record.”
What are the consequences of the retraction?
- Will it or will not restore people’s belief in vaccines? It is too soon to tell but the retraction might be already too late.
- Will it slow down the anti-vaccination movement? It is doubtful but let’s hope that people will try and make informed and wise decisiosn about their kids’ health.
What do Wakefield and his supporters have to say?
He thinks GMC’s findings are “unfounded and unjust.”
“The Lancet retraction of vaccine autism paper condemned as Big Pharma conspiracy to discredit Dr. Wakefield”, according to his supporters.
I guess we haven’t heard the last of that paper of the autism-vaccine issue yet.