Autism-Vaccine Study Was 'Fraud'

January 6, 2011

An editorial published in BMJ cites 'clear evidence of falsification of data' in the controversial paper authored by Andrew Wakefield and several others.

The first study to link the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism was based on doctored information about the children involved, according to a new report on the controversial study, which has since been discredited.

In an editorial published in BMJ, editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee and two others cite “clear evidence of falsification of data” in the study (which appeared in The Lancet 12 years ago) that “should now close the door on this damaging vaccine scare.

“The paper’s scientific limitations were clear when it appeared in 1998,” they wrote. “As the ensuing vaccine scare took off, critics quickly pointed out that the paper was a small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs. Over the following decade, epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.”

The conclusions of the study by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues were renounced by ten of its 13 authors and later retracted by The Lancet. Still, the suggestion the MMR shot was connected to autism spooked parents worldwide and immunization rates for measles, mumps and rubella have never fully recovered.

A new examination found, by comparing the reported diagnoses in the paper to hospital records, that Wakefield and colleagues altered facts about patients in their study.

The analysis, by British journalist Brian Deer, found that despite the claim in Wakefield's paper that the 12 children studied were normal until they had the MMR shot, five had previously documented developmental problems. Deer also found that all the cases were somehow misrepresented when he compared data from medical records and the children's parents.

In a series of articles, Deer demonstrates “the extent of Wakefield’s fraud and how it was perpetrated.” Drawing on interviews, documents, and data made public at the General Medical Council hearings, “Deer shows how Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients’ medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome; how his institution, the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London, supported him as he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain; and how key players failed to investigate thoroughly in the public interest when Deer first raised his concerns,” Godlee and colleagues wrote.

“Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross,” they concluded.

According to Yahoo! News, Wakefield could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls and requests to the publisher of his recent book, which claims there is a connection between vaccines and autism that has been ignored by the medical establishment.

Last May, Wakefield was stripped of his right to practice medicine in Britain. Many other published studies have shown no connection between the MMR vaccination and autism.

But measles has surged since Wakefield's paper was published and there are sporadic outbreaks in Europe and the U.S. In 2008, measles was deemed endemic in England and Wales.

For more:

  • Lancet Retracts Autism Study; Author Under Fire (HCPLive)
  • Controversial Autism Doctor Stripped of License (HCPLive)
  • Journal: Study linking vaccine to autism was fraud (Yahoo! News)