Medical journal retracts study that 1st linked autism to childhood vaccines

The British medical journal Lancet has expunged from the published scientific record the landmark report that first linked autism to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The publisher did this because a medical misconduct panel has found the researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, “dishonest and irresponsible” and to have acted “contrary to the clinical interests” of a child. His 1998 article was the first to link autism to childhood vaccines.

Since the article, unscientific crusades have been waged, the latest by actress Jenny McCarthy, backed by Oprah Winfrey (as reported in the New York Times), to get parents to keep vaccines away from their children for fear of leading to autism, instead of pursuing real cures or better treatments for children suffering from this disease.

Perhaps as a consequence of misinformation distributed by parent groups and celebrities, an outbreak of measles, reported on the British Broadcasting Corporation in 2007, gave doctors in the UK cause for concern. England had experienced about 20 deaths from measles annually before the MMR vaccine was introduced in the early 1980s but only one total death ever since.

The Lancet wrote:

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were “consecutively referred” and that investigations were “approved” by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record.

In lay terms, the journal has concluded that because of Dr. Wakefield’s research practices, there was a statistically significant increase in the odds of obtaining the observed result (autism) due to chance alone (rather than because of the experimental treatment — in this case, vaccination). This selection bias — patients were not selected truly at random — renders the entire experimental result invalid and unacceptable to the scientific community.

The publisher stopped short of saying no link exists between autism and the MMR vaccine, but finding that link has eluded other scientists for the most part. Furthermore, studies based on the Wakefield paper, which is now retracted, will have to be re-evaluated in light of this news.

CNN also reports that Wakefield’s findings had already been discredited by a September 2008 study that found no evidence that the vaccine had a connection to either autism or GI disorders. The study, conducted at Columbia University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also found no relationship between the timing of the vaccine and children getting GI disorders or autism.

Other studies we found on a quick perusal of Medline have also served to tear down Wakefield’s reported link:

  • DeStefano, F., & Chen, R.T. (1999). No evidence for MMR vaccine-associated inflammatory bowel disease or autism in a 14-year prospective study. Lancet, 351, 1327-28
  • Fombonne, E., & Chakrabarti, S. (2001). No evidence for a new variant of MMR-induced autism. Pediatrics, 108, e58
  • Honda et al. (2005). No effect of MMR withdrawal on the incidence of autism: A total population study. Journal of Child Psychiatry and Psychology, 46, 572-79
  • Wilson et al. (2003). Association of ASD and the MMR vaccine. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 157, 628-34

A retraction like this, then, is much more than saying the conclusions reached in the original study were incorrect. That happens all the time in the normal working of the scientific method.

Rather, medical journals only retract stories in this manner as a result of unethical conduct, plagiarism, or some breach of ethics. As stated above, that is the case here. It was reported in the New York Times that Dr. Wakefield used invasive procedures on children that had not been approved.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.