Editor's note: The following editorial appeared last week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In February 1998, British researchers led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a report in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet. The study, based on the cases of 12 young children, suggested the frightening possibility that MMR, a combined vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, was causing childhood bowel diseases and autism spectrum disorders.
Here's what has been learned in the 13 years since then:
Most of Wakefield's co-researchers withdrew their names from the key findings of the report, and the hospital where the research took place discharged him.
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Before the research even began, Wakefield had glaring conflicts of interest that he repeatedly failed to disclose. He was being paid by a lawyer who was planning to sue manufacturers of vaccines. Wakefield also applied for patents for an alternate vaccine and a diagnostic procedure, both of which could become highly profitable if they could link MMR vaccine to autism and bowel disease. He started planning to set up a private company to handle business generated by his patents.
Last February, The Lancet publicly retracted the 1998 report. Three months later, Great Britain's independent General Medical Council declared Wakefield "dishonest" and "irresponsible." It said he had "acted contrary to the clinical interests" of the children in the study by, among other things, subjecting them to medically unnecessary spinal taps and colonoscopies. It stripped Wakefield and his principal collaborator, Dr. John Walker-Smith, of the right to practice medicine.
Most important of all, some two dozen scientific studies since 1998, involving millions of children, have found no link between autism and the MMR vaccine or other vaccines.
Yet, Wakefield and his discredited study continue to fortify a small but potent movement opposed to mandatory vaccinations. MMR immunization rates in Britain, for example, slid to 80 percent by 2003 from around 90 percent in previous years. Within five years, the rates of measles infections in England and Wales soared to the point that the disease was declared endemic.
The revelations keep coming. Just last week, the British Medical Journal launched a three-part series of articles by British journalist Brian Deer. The first two parts (part three appears next week) presented evidence that the Wakefield study falsified and misrepresented data on all 12 of the children in ways that consistently tilted toward Wakefield's financial interests.
Dr. Rachel Orscheln, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Washington University's School of Medicine, told us she understood the concerns of some people who oppose vaccinations, particularly parents of autistic children. "It's a condition that doesn't have a known cause, and people are desperate to find out what that cause might be," she said.
Nevertheless, she cautioned, "the consequences of under-vaccinating can be devastating to individuals and to society."
Polio, measles, rubella, meningitis, hepatitis A and B, mumps, chicken pox, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, influenza and rotavirus are all serious diseases. Don't take our word for it. Ask your doctor.