Dr. Andrew Wakefield's 1998 report in the journal Lancet purporting to show a link between autism and the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella "was based not on bad science but on a deliberate fraud," says Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of BMJ, formerly the British Medical Journal, in an editorial published Tuesday. The editorial accompanies the first of three reports by British investigative journalist Brian Deer that document how Wakefield manipulated data in his attempts to prove something that he "knew" before he started his research. Most of the information in the reports has been published previously, but the recent publication of the General Medical Council's 6-million-word transcript of the hearing in which Wakefield's license to practice medicine in Britain was revoked allowed the editors of BMJ to peer-review Deer's reports and confirm the extensive falsifications in the original Lancet paper.
The episode, Godlee said, reminded her of the announcement of the Piltdown man, the paleontological hoax of 1912 that led people to believe for 40 years that a missing link between man and ape had been found.
The original paper authored by Wakefield and 12 others involved 12 children with autism, nine of them with a regressive form in which the children begin to develop normally, then lose speech or other faculties. The average delay between vaccination and onset of autism in eight of the children was 6.3 days, the authors reported, and the parents were said to blame the vaccine.
But, Deer finds:
--Only one of the nine children who supposedly had regressive autism actually did. Three did not have autism at all.
--Five of the children had preexisting developmental problems, despite the paper's claims that all were normal prior to vaccination.
--Although the paper claimed an average of 6.3 days between vaccination and the onset of symptoms, some children did not show symptoms until months later.
Moreover, none of the details of the medical histories of any of the patients could be matched to those cited in the Lancet article. All had been altered to make Wakefield's claims more convincing. Ten of the authors subsequently asked that the paper be retracted. The Lancet withdrew the paper last year.
Wakefield had been doing research at the Thoughtful House Center for Children in Austin, Texas, but he resigned the position earlier this year, and it is not clear where he is now.
"The sad thing is, his work has influenced a lot of people," said Dr. Peter Hotez of the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington, D.C. [Updated Jan. 6, 1:20 p.m.: An earlier version of this article said the Sabin Vaccine Institute is in New York City.] "If you do a Google search of vaccines, so much of what you see are anti-vaccine sentiments using Wakefield's work as a basis for it, and as a result, children are having vaccines withheld. It's tragic."
According to David G. Amaral of the UC Davis MIND Institute, "What is most destructive in an episode such as this is the undermining of the public's confidence in the integrity of science. I believe that most autism researchers have understood for some time that the weight of scientific evidence does not support the role of vaccines as a major cause of autism. The public should know that science is self-correcting."
Wakefield "is not the first scientist to be spectacularly wrong," noted Dr. Paul A. Offit of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who cited such others as Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons of cold fusion fame. "But nobody did harm like this guy. Let there be no doubt. Hundreds were hospitalized [because they weren't vaccinated], and four children were killed.... He had a tremendous negative impact."
But Offit is not sure he is fraudulent. "That implies intent. He's a believer. That's why he is so convincing. He is convincing because he is convinced."
Says Rick Rollens of Sacramento, the parent of an autistic child and one of the founders of the MIND Institute: "This is just another sad installment of the continued public lynching of Dr. Wakefield by the vaccine establishment and their lackeys in the public health community. The relentless personal and professional assaults on Dr. Wakefield will do nothing now or in the future to alter what we as parents of vaccine-induced autistic children already know: that is, vaccines can and do cause autism. No amount of orchestrated attacks by those who have a vested interest in defending the status quo on the historic and courageous work of Dr. Wakefield will change the truth."