False autism study has done untold harm
Immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella have never recovered from a controversial link made between the MMR vaccine and autism.
The link – denounced last week as an outand-out fraud – was first published in 1998 by one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, the Lancet.
Worried parents were faced with a dilemma. Should they go ahead and immunize their children against common and sometimes deadly childhood diseases at the risk of triggering an incurable syndrome? Or should they skip the shot and hope for the best?
An unknown but worrying number of parents chose not to immunize their children. As a result, Britain and the United States have seen outbreaks of preventable childhood illnesses. In some places in Britain, measles is now endemic. (Fortunately, the Quebec Health Department says there has not been a decrease in the vaccination rate in this province.)
There is no guarantee that debunking the original study is going to sway all parents. Medical experts are going to have to work hard to try to undo the damage inflicted by what is apparently a rogue medical researcher whose work was inadequately vetted by a top-ranked international journal.
The new analysis of the original study should set off alarms at all medical journals. In a paper published online by the British Medical Journal, journalist Brian Deer found that facts about the 12 children in the original study had been altered to make a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism, where no such link existed. Dates were changed, diagnoses misrepresented, and the young patients themselves found by anti-MMR campaigners.
Deer also reported that the researcher, Andrew Wakefield, was secretly paid $675,000 through a law firm that had plans to launch a class-action suit against the MMR vaccine. Wakefield, stripped of his British medical licence in May, insists that he is the victim of a smear campaign by the pharmaceutical industry.
Caught between what look like conflicting claims, some parents might never be persuaded that the truth behind the vaccination is now known. It is a truism that people are more easily scared than “unscared.” “You can do study after study, but people are far more compelled by their fears than by their reason,” U.S. pediatrician Paul Offit told media. And, indeed, two Quebecers whom The Gazette spoke to last week – one the founder of an autism support group, the other the author of a book about autism, and both parents of autistic children – said they think many parents are unlikely to change their anti-vaccine stand.
Science, as the editor of the British Medical Journal wrote last week, is based on trust. Other researchers, reviewers, readers and critics take on faith that the original data on which a study is based are accurate and honestly documented. Yet surely Wakefield’s study – with its tiny number of patients and lack of a control group – should have prompted more vigilance than it did.
The Lancet needs to speak up. Is there a need for an inquiry into how the peer-reviewed process failed in this case? Could a similar fraudulent study see the light of day? It might take years for scientists to regain the trust of parents. And in the meantime, oncevanquished childhood illnesses could once again spread freely.