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Autism-Vaccine Link Researcher Andrew Wakefield Accused of Faking His Data

News & Comment

Steven Novella

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 33.3, May / June 2009

Andrew Wakefield, the researcher who in 1998 sparked the public controversy over whether the MMR (mumps measles and rubella) vaccine is linked to autism, may have faked his data. Wakefield and others published a small study of only twelve subjects in The Lancet claiming it was evidence for a link between the MMR vaccine and autism (Wakefield 1998). As a result, compliance with the MMR dropped from 92 percent in the U.K. down to 85 percent, and measles cases soared from only fifty-eight cases in 1998 to 1,348 cases in 2008. Fears have also spread to the U.S., where measles cases are also starting to increase.

Wakefield’s paper has already been thoroughly discredited, and subsequent studies have shown convincingly that there is a lack of association between MMR or vaccines in general and autism. For example, one of the key components of Wakefield’s theory is that autism is linked to gastrointestinal disorders in some children, potentially allowing the measles virus from the vaccine to enter the bloodstream and wreak havoc. A replication of Wakefield’s experiment by Mady Hornig was published last September in PLoS ONE (Hornig 2008). Hornig found no correlation between MMR and autism and also did not find the measles virus in the guts of children with autism and GI complaints, directly contradicting Wakefield.

Far larger than the scientific controversy stirred up by Wakefield, which has largely been settled, is the storm of ethical concerns regarding his scientific behavior. In 2004, ten of Wakefield’s co-authors withdrew their names from the original publication, and The Lancet’s editors published a retraction, citing undisclosed conflicts of interest by Wakefield (Lancet 2004). Specifically, Wakefield did not disclose a large consulting fee he received from attorneys representing clients suing over claims that their children’s autism was caused by MMR. In fact, eleven of the twelve children in Wakefield’s study were part of the litigation. Further, nine months prior to publishing the study, Wakefield applied for a patent for a new MMR vaccine that he claimed was safer. He therefore stood to make phenomenal profits from scares over the current vaccine’s safety (Deer 2008).

Investigative journalist Brian Deer has been putting the pieces of the Wakefield puzzle together for several years now. His investigations recently uncovered evidence that Wakefield may also have faked his original data. He writes: “Our investigation, confirmed by evidence presented to the General Medical Council (GMC), reveals that: In most of the twelve cases, the children’s ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and The Lancet paper showed them as abnormal” (Deer 2009).

Andrew Wakefield remains under investigation by the U.K.’s General Medical Council for ethics violations. He remains unrepentant about his claims and has since moved to America, where he runs the Thoughtful House autism center in Austin, Texas.


Steven Novella

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Steven Novella, MD, is an assistant professor of neurology at Yale University School of Medicine. He is the host of the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe podcast, author of the NeuroLogica blog, executive editor of the Science-Based Medicine blog, and president of The New England Skeptical Society.