Just when you think there's nothing left to say about a 13-year-old paper that purported to link childhood vaccination and autism, it turns out you're wrong.
In the latest issue of BMJ, the British Medical Journal, investigative reporter Brian Deer makes the case that the infamous Lancet study, withdrawn last year, wasn't just wrong — it was fraudulent because key facts were altered to support the autism link.
The original paper reported on a dozen kids, eight of whom supposedly developed gastrointestinal trouble and "regressive autism," a form of the disorder that strikes later in childhood, after getting a combination vaccine against measles mumps and rubella. The work was led by Andrew Wakefield, an English doctor whose license was revoked last May for "serious professional misconduct" related to the work.
Where did the paper go wrong? Deer counts the ways after scouring health records and interviewing the patients families and various doctors. A few of the lowlights:
Only 1 of 9 kids said to have regressive autism clearly had it. Three had no form of autism.
Contrary to the paper's assertion that all the kids were normal before vaccination, five had some sort of preexisting developmental problems.
Behavioral problems the paper said popped up days after vaccination didn't actually appear for months in some kids, a fact that undercuts the causality of vaccination.
Wakefield's hypothesized link between vaccination and autism was flimsy from the start, and has since been repeatedly repudiated. But the provocative Lancet paper fueled a vigorous backlash against vaccination.
An accompanying editorial in BMJ argues that "clear evidence of falsification of data should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare" for good.
CNN's Anderson Cooper interviewed Wakefield, who called Deer, "a hitman" hired to "take me down." Wakefield defended the paper and his methods. See the video below for the full discussion.
UPDATE 4:30 p.m.
As NPR's Jon Hamilton reports on today's All Things Considered, more revelations about Wakefield aren't likely to make the fear of vaccines go away. But David Ropeik, an instructor at Harvard, says something else eventually will. "As more and more people get measles and kids die, which is happening around the world. Eventually the threat of the disease will come back and surmount our fear of the vaccine."
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A medical journal in the U.K. says the British doctor who became famous for linking autism to a childhood vaccine committed scientific fraud. The allegation involves a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that gained worldwide attention, but has since been widely and repeatedly discredited.
Now, an investigation by the British Medical Journal has concluded that Wakefield altered or fabricated basic information about the children in his study.
NPR's Jon Hamilton has the story.
JON HAMILTON: The new findings come from Brian Deer, a journalist in the U.K. who has been debunking Wakefield's claims for seven years now.
Many scientists questioned the original study when it was published in the journal The Lancet. Eventually, Wakefield's co-authors disavowed the study, and the journal retracted it. And last year, Wakefield lost his medical license. The disciplinary hearing leading up to that made public medical records on the 12 children in his study.
Deer has now compared those records with Wakefield's claims, and found that almost nothing checked out.
Mr. BRIAN DEER (Journalist): Three out of nine cases - he said - had regressive autism, didn't have autism diagnosis at all. Where he said children had problems developing within days of vaccination, we find either that the children had developed their problems before vaccination or alternatively, months after vaccinations.
Where he said all the children had an inflammatory bowel disease, we were able to get at the actual hospital records and show that they did not diagnose any inflammatory bowel disease.
HAMILTON: Deer says editors at the British Medical Journal checked the records on their own before publishing his investigation and an accompanying editorial.
Mr. DEER: They satisfied themselves that what I was saying was accurate and, on that basis, adjudicated that this was willful fraud.
HAMILTON: Deer's findings are no surprise to people who've been following the Wakefield case.
Paul Offit is a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and a champion of childhood vaccination.
Dr. PAUL OFFIT (Pediatrician, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia): I don't think anything is new here. Even the revelation - quote, unquote -that he had altered clinical data to fit his hypothesis is not new. I think what we've learned from this is that this was not a scientist.
HAMILTON: Instead, Offit says, Wakefield was a man with a very strong belief, which probably helped him influence people in a way that did great harm. Offit says Wakefield's public comments helped cause vaccination rates in the U.K. to decline sharply. The result, he says, is that hundreds of kids have been hospitalized for things like measles and whooping cough; four have died.
Dr. OFFIT: And so basically, that paper killed four children. And who's responsible? I mean, you can argue Wakefield certainly was responsible, but so was the editor of that journal, and so was the media that sort of ravenously followed that story as if it was a fact when clearly, it was wrong. And I think as a public health and scientific community, we didn't stand up hard and strong enough to prevent that.
HAMILTON: Wakefield's ideas tapped into many people's distrust of drug companies and the government, along with their desire to protect children.
David Ropeik is an instructor at Harvard, and the author of a book about why we tend to focus on certain risks while ignoring others. Ropeik says more revelations about Wakefield aren't likely to make the fear of vaccines go away. But he says something else, eventually, will.
Mr. DAVID ROPEIK (Director of Risk Communication, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis): As more and more and more people get measles and kids die - which is happening around the world - eventually, the threat of the disease will come back and surmount our fear of the vaccine.
HAMILTON: In the meantime, Andrew Wakefield says in a statement that he continues to stand behind his 1998 study.
Jon Hamilton, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.