Researcher Who Sparked the Vaccine/Autism Scare "Acted Unethically"


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As I reported a while back, in the past few years the percentage of American children who receive childhood vaccinations has been dropping, and educated, well-off parents are leading the retreat. What has spooked them? Parents fear that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine may trigger autism, a neurological disorder that typically appears before a child reaches the age of three.

The MMR/autism hypothesis took off in 1998 with the publication of a study of 12 autistic children by Canadian gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield's study found traces of the measles virus in the guts of children he tested. He concluded that the virus derived from the MMR vaccination, and suggested that it caused inflammation possibly related to the children's neuropsychiatric dysfunction . 

Since then study after study has debunked Wakefield's research. The Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover magazine reports:

…the UK's General Medical Council has found that Andrew Wakefield — the founder of the modern antivaccination movement — acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" when doing the research that led him to conclude that vaccinations were linked with autism. This is being reported everywhere, including the BBC, Sky News, the Yorkshire Evening Post, and more.

The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK, rather like the AMA in the US) didn't investigate whether his claims were correct or not — and let's be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong — only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children's clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.

Wow. Again, let's be clear: that's a whole lot of ethical damnation from the UK's leading medical board.

Not to pile on here, but I was rather surprised that they didn't mention the claims — supported by a lot of evidence — that on top of all that unethical behavior, he may have faked his results, too. There's also no mention of his grave conflict of interest– at the time he published his paper slamming vaccines and which started the antivax craze, he was developing an alternative to vaccinations, so he had a very large monetary incentive to make the public distrust vaccines.

Hurray! Let's hope this ruling gets as wide a distribution as possible so that more children will receive vaccinations. Still no word on what sanctions Wakefield might suffer.

Kudos to Steve Skutnik.