Controversial Autism Study Retracted by Medical Journal

1998 paper scared parents over possible link between MMR vaccine, developmental disorder

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By Amanda Gardner
HealthDay Reporter

TUESDAY, Feb. 2 (HealthDay News) -- The prestigious British medical journal The Lancet on Tuesday formally retracted a highly controversial study that had linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to autism and gastrointestinal problems.

The original article, published on Feb. 28, 1998, set off a worldwide furor, with many researchers condemning it as shoddy science. But parents of children with autism rallied around the main researcher, Dr. Andrew Wakefield of Great Britain, to condemn vaccines. The result: vaccination rates in both the United States and Britain plummeted while new cases of measles rose.

Ten of Wakefield's 13 co-authors renounced the study's conclusions several years ago, and The Lancet had previously said it should never have published the research.

"We fully retract this paper from the published record," the journal's editors said in a statement Tuesday.

The retraction came a day before a competing British medical journal, BMJ, was to publish a commentary urging The Lancet to retract the study, according to the Associated Press.

BMJ welcomed news of the retraction.

"This will help to restore faith in this globally important vaccine and the integrity of the scientific literature," Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor of BMJ, said in a news release.

The retraction was also applauded by pediatricians in the United States.

"We clearly welcome this -- this is another statement that the original studies done by Wakefield do not hold up to expert scrutiny," said Dr. Gwen Wurm, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "Measles still affects over 10 million people a year and is one of the major causes of vaccine-preventable deaths. The MMR vaccine is safe. Over 25 studies have refuted the connection, the largest one a wonderfully done epidemiologic study done in Denmark of over 500,000 children which found absolutely no difference in the rate of autism in children who got the vaccine compared with children who did not get the vaccine."

"We're very concerned about the fear that has been played upon parents about the vaccine," Wurm added. "The real fear is not to be immunized."

Dr. Paul A. Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center and chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said: "Wakefield had a hypothesis that MMR [vaccine] causes autism. That hypothesis was wrong. Study after study has shown it was wrong."

"The paper should never have been published, and it did a lot of harm. Hundreds of people in England were hospitalized and four children died of measles because parents thought MMR caused autism. Will those children get their lives back? It's too little, too late," Offit said.

Dr. Robert Frenck, professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at Cincinnati Children's Hospital, said: "This [retraction] further supports the position that there has not been any correlation with autism and vaccines or any constituents of vaccines. Autism is a terrible disorder and pediatricians want to find and eliminate the cause, but vaccines aren't the cause and by spending time and money looking at vaccines, it takes resources away from finding the actual cause."

Autism Speaks, a leading advocacy group, said the discrediting of the vaccine research won't hinder its efforts to search for a cure for the disorder, a complex developmental disability that causes problems with social interaction and communication.

"We are committed to funding science that is rigorous and stands up to independent scrutiny in order to ensure that families and individuals with autism, and practitioners, can rely on scientific findings with confidence," Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer of the organization, said in a news release.

On Jan. 28, the UK General Medical Council, a regulatory body, ruled that Wakefield had violated a number of ethical codes while doing the autism research. Among other things, he apparently paid his son's friends $8 to let him draw blood and showed "callous disregard" for children in carrying out various tests, including spinal taps, according to published reports.