It has been obvious for years that a British study positing a possible link between a common vaccine combination and autism failed the physician's injunction to "do no harm." Still, it's significant that the influential medical journal that published Dr. Andrew Wakefield's discredited study in 1998 finally has retracted it.
The decision by the Lancet won't change the minds of some parents. It will not entirely dispel the conspiracy theories about how the medical establishment covered up a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, which protects infants against measles, mumps and rubella. Still, the conclusive repudiation of what has been a sacred text for the anti-vaccination movement should reassure at least some of the families that have refused to accept an overwhelming medical consensus that MMR was safe as well as effective.
In belatedly rejecting the Wakefield study, the Lancet criticized more than its bad science. Dr. Richard Horton, the journal's editor in chief, linked the retraction to a medical panel's judgment that Wakefield's research had been not only dishonest but a violation of ethical rules. The panel also said that Wakefield had shown a "callous disregard" for the suffering of children who participated in the study. But it is not just the participating children who suffered -- and not just Wakefield who showed callous disregard. Those who propagated the vaccine-autism connection exhibited willful blindness to multiple studies debunking it.
The Wakefield study seems to have had worse consequences in Britain, where vaccinations declined dramatically after its publication, than in this country. Even so, the anti-vaccination movement it unleashed -- one that has been amplified by the Internet and a culture of skepticism toward mainstream medicine -- certainly influenced decisions by parents in the U.S. not to have their children vaccinated. It's hard to believe, for example, that anti-vaccine propaganda played no part in recent increases in measles cases or in the number of parents seeking "personal belief" exemptions from vaccinating their children.
Children with autism disorders face serious challenges, as do their parents, teachers and caregivers. The diagnosis is deeply unsettling to parents, who are understandably susceptible to theories pointing to an external cause. But the price of the vaccination scare stoked by the Wakefield study has been more sick children. We hope this will be a retraction heard round the world.