Vaccine Study Retracted, and Causes of Autism Remain Elusive

Families need solid data, but research priority isn’t more vaccine studies.

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In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet published a study suggesting that the childhood MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine was tied to autism. On Tuesday, the journal retracted the study, saying in an editorial that key aspects of the paper—in which Andrew Wakefield reported that 12 children he studied had experienced a sudden onset of autism symptoms after getting MMR shots—were false.

This came after years of controversy surrounding the study and after last week's conclusion by Britain's General Medical Council that Wakefield had acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in doing his research. Among the findings: Wakefield didn't randomly choose the children studied, he subjected children to painful and unnecessary tests, and he was paid by lawyers for parents who thought their children had been harmed by the MMR vaccine. (Wakefield, who now works for a clinic in Texas that sells autism treatments, disputed that finding, calling it "unfounded and unfair.") British journalist Brian Deer has cataloged other problems with the study, including records indicating that the children's autism symptoms did not coincide with the MMR shot.

The effect of this one medical paper on the health of children has been extraordinary. Vaccination rates for children in the United States and the United Kingdom have been dropping, and the rates of deadly childhood diseases like measles are rising for the first time in decades.

Time and money that could have been marshaled to find the true causes of autism, and then used to develop effective treatments for the nearly 1 in 100 American children diagnosed with autism or a related disorder, have instead been sidetracked to the expensive and exhausting effort of combating the antivaccine movement inspired by Wakefield's flawed report. (Genetics researcher Steven Salzberg gives a good recap of the many large studies that found no vaccine-autism link.)

Saddest of all, parents who desperately want to help their children have been reduced to chasing untested "cures du jour." Liane Kupferberg Carter knows the lure of a promised cure when your child is suffering. She and her husband spent thousands of dollars on untested treatments for their son, finally fleeing when the doctor suggested using a toxic cancer drug that he had tried on just one other kid. That's not science, Carter writes in Tuesday's New York Times in a guest blog called "The False Prophets of Autism": 

It's distressing and hurtful to hear [antivaccine activist Jenny] McCarthy say her son is cured because she 'was willing to do what it took.' McCarthy, who describes herself as one of a tribe of 'warrior moms,' seems to imply that if our kids are unrecovered, it's because we didn't do the diet right, weren't willing to let doctors inject our children with unproven drugs, or somehow just didn't love our children enough. I've heard McCarthy say on national TV, 'Evan is my science.' I'm sorry, one little boy is not 'science.' Warm and fuzzy anecdotes don't do it for me. Give me hard science any day, with its double blind studies and rigorous peer review. 

The scientific research establishment is powerful. If I were the parent of a kid with autism, I'd want to deploy all of the research establishment's power to search for and test reliable treatments. That will take time and money. Imagine if McCarthy had devoted her considerable energies in the past decade toward raising money for basic research, epidemiological studies on possible environmental factors, or innovative behavioral therapies. There might be a lot more real help out there for children and more good choices for their parents.