Sang Tan/AP
British doctor Andrew Wakefield at the General Medical Council in London in July 2007.

Newspaper Accuses MMR–Autism Doctor of Falsifying Data

February 09, 2009 11:27 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The Times of London has reported allegations that Andrew Wakefield submitted false information for his landmark 1998 study linking vaccines to autism.

Paper Questions Elements of Study

In 1998, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet linked the measles, mumps rubella vaccine to autism. The study, which was based on 12 children, led many parents to forego vaccination to protect their children from autism, and over the last decade, the prevalence of measles has risen worldwide.

A story published Sunday in the Times of London claims, “In most of the 12 cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records.” The article also says several parents raised concerns about their children before getting the MMR vaccine.

The paper’s findings are confirmed by evidence the General Medical Council has heard. The council is investigating Wakefield and two of his colleagues for misconduct allegedly related to “ethical aspects” of the study, but not its findings.

In a written statement, Wakefield said the Times approached him with allegations of wrongdoing two days before the piece ran. He denied the allegations. “The reporting of the children in the Lancet paper is an accurate account of the clinical histories as reported to Professor Walker-Smith and his clinical colleagues,” Wakefield wrote.

Given the parents’ descriptions of the children and the link between measles and brain damage, Wakefield wrote, “there was and continues to be every reasonable basis for suspecting a possible link between MMR vaccination and autistic regression.”

Brian Deer, the author of the Times piece, has a long history investigating Wakefield. Since 2004 Deer has published multiple stories about the MMR–autism link.

Opinion & Analysis: Bombshell, or “junk journalism”?

P.Z. Myers, a professor and biologist in Minnesota, wrote about the Times revelations on the blog Pharyngula. He called the news “shocking” but doubted it would change anything.

“The anti-vaxers have ignored all the evidence that they are wrong so far, so one more demonstration that one of the primary promulgators of this nonsense was an outright fraud won’t change a thing, I’m afraid,” Myers wrote.

The blog Vaccine Information and Your Child’s Health Safety called the Times piece “more junk journalism by an unethical unprofessional freelance journalist to revive a seemingly flagging career.” The blog goes on to call the allegations “inaccurate stories with laughable claims.”

Background: Vaccine fears, measles outbreaks

In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of measles cases had risen to 131 so far in 2008, more than triple the number reported in 2007. In none of those cases has anyone died from the highly infectious disease.

Measles cases are growing worldwide. In the last two years, more than 12,000 people in Europe have gotten measles, according to a Lancet study, Bloomberg reports.

The CDC said that roughly half of the U.S. cases occurred because parents refused to vaccinate their children. Some parents believe the measles shot or a vaccine preservative which contains mercury causes autism, but officials say there is no good evidence of that.

The vaccine issue is widely debated among doctors and parents. Some parents who choose not to vaccinate their children because they are worried about the autism link find their children are facing a new set of social problems: they are ostracized in schools and playgroups. Many parents who do vaccinate feel they have a right to protect their children by knowing who has been vaccinated; since vaccines are not 100 percent effective, an infected child can pose a risk, even to a vaccinated child.

But many parents who believe that there is a vaccine–autism link remain convinced and some medical cases make the issue more confusing. In March, Hannah Poling’s parents sucessfully sued a federal vaccine oversight body, contending that a string of nine vaccinations administered to the girl as a toddler exacerbated an underlying condition that led to her developing encephalopathy. That encephalopathy contributed to developmental delays and had features similar to symptoms of autism.

After the verdict was announced, however, health officials were quick to reassure the public that vaccinations are safe.

The World Health Organization had hoped to completely eradicate measles from Europe by 2010, but to do that, vaccination rates have to be 95 percent in every country, Bloomberg reported in January.

“If we don’t achieve 95 percent coverage, it seems like we will never achieve the goal,” Mark Muscat, an epidemiologist at Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut, told Bloomberg.

Countries with rates lower than 90 percent included the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Romania, Bloomberg said. Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have vaccination rates higher than 95 percent.

American public health officials have connected some recent measles cases to people who have recently arrived from Europe. For example, officials in Suffolk County, N.Y. issued an alert in August about a teenager who was infected with measles visited a mall. The girl didn’t know she had the disease, according to WCBS, but was “highly contagious” when she was out in public.

“According to state health officials, the 13-year-old girl was never immunized and was infected with measles after traveling through Europe,” WCBS said.

“The ongoing measles outbreaks in several states are testimony that those who forgo vaccinations are vulnerable to infection from imported disease, and can pose a significant health risk for their communities,” said American Medical Association board member Dr. Ardis Hoven, an infectious disease specialist, according to the Associated Press.

Government data shows that more than 77 percent of American toddlers have gotten their shots, but that leaves almost one-fourth of all toddlers unvaccinated against diseases like measles, mumps and rubella. While some, including parents of autistic children, have suggested a tie between the vaccine for those three diseases (the MMR vaccine) and autism, scientific studies have never shown a link.

The coalition of doctors’ groups, known as the Immunization Alliance, has endorsed a Call to Action to enlist health professionals, the public, the media and the government in supporting immunizations.

MarketWatch reports that “The Alliance says many young parents have never seen these diseases, so they question the need for the vaccines. Pediatricians are hearing from parents who fear that their children are receiving too many vaccines, and recent inaccurate media reports have helped to fuel their concerns.” The group says that without vaccines, epidemics could cause loss of life, or severe loss of quality of life due to complications from diseases.

Reference: Autism


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