In 1998 the British medical journal Lancet published a study led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that changed public opinion about vaccination ever since. The study described twelve children with autism and colitis whose symptoms began shortly after they received the MMR vaccine. Public panic was immediate and sustained. Vaccination rates plummeted in England and measles incidence climbed thereafter. Measles is now endemic in England, meaning that there are enough unvaccinated children that the infection can continue to spread within the population. The anti-vaccine scare has since been transported globally. In the US the movement is being promoted by celebrities and some fringe pediatricians who promote themselves as being sensitive to parents’ concerns about vaccines.

The study never gained much scientific traction. First of all, a study casting doubt on a vaccine given to millions of children by citing twelve cases should raise nothing but skepticism. After all, I’m sure I can find 12 children whose first seizure coincided with their first Latin class. Multiple larger studies since then have failed to find any link between MMR and autism. Nevertheless distraught parents and anti-vaccine activists continue to swear by Wakefield and his study.

It should have been clear when Wakefield’s findings could not be reproduced that his study was wrong. But science is a human endeavor and as such often takes an irregular path to the truth. There are many wrong turns and dead ends simply because nature yields her secrets reluctantly. But this was not a simple case of well-intentioned science reaching the wrong conclusions. An article by Brian Deer published in BMJ last week (link below) lists multiple reasons to believe that the study was a deliberate fraud.  Below, I summarize just a few of the glaring inconsistencies Deer found.

Long before he began working on the Lancet study Wakefield had been retained by attorneys to support a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers. These attorneys and other anti-MMR campaigners referred the parents of the patients in the study to Wakefield specifically because they reported the symptoms he was looking for. The source of the patients was not reported in the study, leaving it to appear that they were simply 12 interesting cases that the authors discovered.

All of the patients underwent a colonoscopy to demonstrate colitis. All of the biopsy results were normal and did not show any signs of colitis. Nine of the results were later changed in the paper to “non-specific colitis.”

Five of the twelve children had developmental problems documented in their medical records prior to their receipt of the MMR vaccine.

In review of preliminary drafts of the paper which were circulated by the authors prior to publication, the average time interval between the administration of the vaccine and the onset of symptoms shrank with each subsequent version of the study. That is, every time the paper was edited the apparent link between MMR and the onset of behavioral and intestinal problems grew stronger.

Deer summarizes

So that is the Lancet 12: the foundation of the vaccine scare. No case was free of misreporting or alteration. Taken together, NHS records cannot be reconciled with what was published.

A year ago, Lancet retracted the study. (I wrote about it then, link below.) Last May, Wakefield’s medical license in England was revoked. He remains unapologetic and denies wrongdoing.

Think of all the harm done – all the cases of measles in the UK and the US in the last decade, the funds spend on large trials to try to reproduce Wakefield’s findings, the funds that should have been spent finding the cause of autism which is still unknown, the anguished parents some of whom must now realize they were fooled.

Hopefully this false link between vaccines and autism is now dead and buried. Celebrities who attempt to resuscitate it or rally to Wakefield’s defense should be dragged through infectious disease wards in London to be reminded of the consequences of their lies.

Learn more:

BMJ article by Brian Deer: How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed

Wall Street Journal editorial: The Autism Vaccine Hoax

MSNBC article: Doctor defends research tying vaccine to autism

CNN article: Retracted autism study an ‘elaborate fraud,’ British journal finds

My previous posts on the anti-vaccine movement and vaccine refusal:

Twelve Years Later, the Truth about Vaccines and Autism

Vaccines: Fighting Fear with Information

Vaccine Refusal: Turning Back Two Centuries of Progress

U.S. Measles Cases at Highest Numbers Since 2001