A 1998 British study that launched an international fear that certain childhood vaccinations can cause autism has been labeled an “elaborate fraud” in a medical journal.
The news — contained in a Jan. 5 study in the BMJ — is seen by some as the beginning of an end to a major distraction in autism research.
Perhaps now researchers and parents will “devote more effort” to finding what is really behind the increased incidence of autism, said Dr. Michael F. Roizen. More promising avenues to explore are genetic triggers and how they interact with environmental materials, such as pesticides, he said.
Meanwhile, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who is at the center of the scandal, has defended himself as the victim of a “hit man” journalist, while parents’ groups who believe in a vaccine-autism link have rushed to his defense.
In the BMJ investigation, journalist Brian Deer said the 1998 Wakefield study used “bogus data” to link the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine with the rapid onset of autism in eight of 12 “previously normal” children.
After examining the children’s medical records and interviewing their parents, only one of the 12 children was found to have “regressive autism,” or late-onset of the syndrome, the core concern of the 1998 study, Mr. Deer wrote.
In other odd findings, Mr. Deer said three children didn’t have autism diagnoses; two children had bowel problems and “fits” before they received the MMR vaccine; and one child was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, which is not regressive and is distinct from autism.
Mr. Deer wrote that the parents didn’t know that Dr. Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, was already seeking to prove that vaccines were linked to a “new syndrome” of enteritis (a bowel disorder) and disintegrative disorder (late-onset autism) in children.
A key goal of Dr. Wakefield’s study, published in the Lancet in 1998, was to show a clear “time link” between the MMR vaccinations and the onset of symptoms, wrote Mr. Deer. This would bolster a case against vaccine makers, he wrote, noting that Dr. Wakefield was receiving payments from lawyer Richard Barr, who wanted to pursue such a lawsuit.
The Wakefield study “was in fact an elaborate fraud,” BMJ editors said in an editorial, noting that Lancet retracted the study in 2010 and independent studies “consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.”
On CNN this week, Dr. Wakefield defended his work and called Mr. Deer a “hit man” for the vaccine-making pharmaceutical industry.
“Who bought this man? Who is paying this man?” Dr. Wakefield asked CNN host Anderson Cooper. “This is a ruthless, pragmatic attempt to crush any investigation into valid vaccine concerns,” Dr. Wakefield added, noting that Mr. Deer once received financial support from the British pharmaceutical industry.
Generation Rescue, an anti-autism advocacy group led by actress Jenny McCarthy, the mother of an autistic son, called the BMJ study “much ado about nothing.”
“If all the science on vaccines and autism has been done, how come no one has yet looked at unvaccinated children?” the website asked, adding that the BMJ study has sparked a “vaccine-industry-funded media circus.”
Ms. McCarthy wrote the foreword to Dr. Wakefield’s 2010 book, “Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines: The Truth Behind a Tragedy.”
Dr. Wakefield’s 1998 study launched a vaccine scare that remains unshaken by contradicting studies.
Public officials have pleaded for parents to vaccinate their children, pointing to higher rates of whooping cough and measles and even some deaths. But a March study in Pediatrics found that one in four parents believe vaccines can cause autism in otherwise healthy children.
The rising rates of measles and whooping cough are the tragic consequences of the Wakefield study, but, on the positive side, so is the high-profile emphasis on vaccine safety, said Dr. Roizen, whose latest book, “You: Raising Your Child” has an extensive section on vaccine controversies and vaccine safety.
Dr. Roizen’s advice to pregnant women and mothers of young children is to spend money on organic foods and wash vegetables faithfully until the children are older than age 3. Pregnancy and the early years are “the most important time for brain development,” he said.
Moreover, if the vaccine-autism link can be finally set aside, maybe researchers and parents groups will focus on the more likely reasons for the rise in autism, he said. It’s likely that “elements of both” environmental factors and genetic triggers are behind the autism syndrome.