Vaccine-Autism Link Had Long, Inaccurate History

This year thousands of children in Afghanistan will die from measles; they're among the quarter million of children worldwide who die annually from this preventable disease, a tragic situation that is at least improving.

Meanwhile, in the United States this year, thousands of parents will deny the measles vaccine for their children, having heard from someone somewhere that vaccines cause autism.

At the hub between these contrasting trajectories — measles deaths dropping from about a million to 250,000 annually since 1999 as a result of focused immunization programs, and measles on the rise year by year in the United States and United Kingdom since 1999 as a result of dramatic declines in immunization rates — is a 1998 study published in the Lancet that invented the vaccine-autism myth.

The Lancet, once referred to as a prestigious British medical journal,retracted that study last week, finally understanding that the work was flawed and that the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, hid data and lied about his financial stake.

Ooops, sorry about that outbreak

Here's the backdrop: An unknown British scientist named Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a paper claiming a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, gastrointestinal disease and autism. The Lancet promoted it; the news media reported it; and parents in wealthy countries believed it.

There were just a few problems, though. The first and most obvious was the fact that there were more authors than subjects. The study was based on 12 children from the hospital where Wakefield was working. For The Lancet to publish, let alone promote, work that negates years of medical wisdom based on a skimpy analysis of 12 kids was highly irresponsible from the get go.

Next was the article's opening line: "We investigated a consecutive series of children with chronic enterocolitis and regressive developmental disorder." Nope, unless "consecutive" means 1, 5, 8 and onward. Subsequent analysis of the methodology, which should have been done during the peer review process, revealed that Wakefield cherry picked the patients for the study.

Next came the lousy job in cheery picking. Although the paper claimed that cognitive problems developed a few days after the MMR vaccine, a simple investigation of hospital records revealed this wasn't so; and in several cases parents reported problems before the vaccine.

Next were the conflicts of interest. Seems that Wakefield was getting money from lawyers planning on suing vaccine makers, and he owned a patent on an alternative to the MMR vaccine.

Next were the questionable practices. Seems that Wakefield subjected the kids to invasive tests, such as lumbar punctures, which they didn't need and for which he never received ethical approval.

Just about every aspect of the study, such as the detection of the measles virus in the guts of these children, is questionable. Ten of the other 12 authors indeed formally retracted their interpretation of the results in 2004.

McCarthy, Carrey and other experts

The UK General Medical Council, which regulates doctors, launched an investigation of Wakefield in 2004 based largely on facts revealed by British journalist Brian Deer about the aforementioned lies and fudged data. The Council issued their report in January 2010 and concluded that Wakefield had "callous disregard" for the children he studies. He may lose his right to practice medicine.

But what does Jenny McCarthy have to say? McCarthy, the author of the best book on the vaccine-autism connection to be written by a former Playboy bunny, and husband Jim Carrey are convinced that vaccines caused the autism in McCarthy's boy.

"Dr. Andrew Wakefield is being discredited to prevent a historic study from being published that for the first time looks at vaccinated versus unvaccinated primates and compares..." blah blah blah blah blah, according to an exhaustive statement issued last week by the couple.

What this really means is that Wakefield is still a hero to many.

Are vaccines without danger? No. There's a slight risk of a serious adverse reaction. Far more dangerous, though, is driving to the doctor's office to get the vaccine, given the number of highway fatalities. Staying home might be best, particularly if your kid isn't vaccinated, because these kids are the source of the vast majority of measles, whooping cough and other outbreaks.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears each Tuesday on LiveScience.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.