Ideas have consequences.  False ideas, especially popular false ideas, can cause harm.  For example, the very popular false idea “corduroy pants and wide lapels are far out, man” made an entire nation ugly for about a decade.  And some false ideas do even more harm than that.

In 1998 the British medical journal The Lancet published a paper authored by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that claimed to link autism to the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR).  The study looked at 12 children (that’s right, twelve, not twelve thousand) with developmental abnormalities and intestinal conditions that may have presented after the administration of MMR.

This supposed association spawned a large popular movement that urged suspicion of vaccines and recommended that parents refuse vaccines or delay their children’s immunizations.  Multiple subsequent larger studies have refuted the conclusions of the 1998 article, repeatedly finding no link between vaccinations and autism.  But undeterred by the actual evidence, the anti-vaccine movement continued to spread unfounded allegations, frightening parents about vaccines.

The consequences of this false idea were predictable, and devastating.  In the UK and US, vaccination rates dropped and in the last few years epidemics of measles have occurred.  Despite the decreased vaccination rate, the incidence of autism has not decreased, and the true cause of autism remains elusive.  Meanwhile Dr. Wakefield, the author of the 1998 study, has become a celebrity in the anti-vaccine movement, as its disciples have only his small study to lean on.

Recently, The Lancet learned that the study itself was deeply flawed.  First, the 12 patients were chosen in a way that could have introduced a great element of bias.  Second, many invasive and medically unnecessary procedures were done on the children without oversight of a research ethics board and without parental consent (an important protection that is mandatory in all research on human subjects).  Finally, Dr. Wakefield did not disclose that he received funding from attorneys with litigation against vaccine manufacturers.

So this week the editors of The Lancet publicly retracted the 1998 study.  Dr. Wakefield has been discredited and the anti-vaccination movement lost their last thread of scientific credibility.

I hope that public figures like Jenny McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who have promoted the false and lethal idea that vaccines cause autism will take this opportunity to publically recant and find less pernicious crusades to pursue.  I’m waiting for their announcement, but I may be waiting until corduroy pants make a comeback.

Tangential miscellany:

My post last week about normal weight obesity generated many interesting comments.  One attentive reader corrected me that fat is never converted to muscle.  That’s true.  I should not have used that phrase.  Fat cells remain fat cells forever, and muscle cells remain muscle cells.  Exercise burns fat, shrinking fat cells and enlarging muscle cells.  I appreciate the correction and changed the wording of the original post.

Learn more:

NY Times article:  Journal Retracts 1998 Paper Linking Autism to Vaccines

Retraction in The Lancet:  Retraction—Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children

BBC News article from a year ago:  Rise in measles ‘very worrying’