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Study Linking Vaccine to Autism Broke Research Rules, U.K. Regulators Say
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MMR/Autism Doctor Acted 'Dishonestly,' 'Irresponsibly'
By Jennifer Warner
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
Jan. 29, 2010 -- The British doctor who led a study suggesting a link between the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly," a U.K. regulatory panel has ruled.
The panel represents the U.K. General Medical Council (GMC), which regulates the medical profession. It ruled only on whether Andrew Wakefield, MD, and two colleagues acted properly in carrying out their research, and not on whether MMR vaccine has anything to do with autism.
In the ruling, the GMC used strong language to condemn the methods used by Wakefield in conducting the study.
In the study, published 12 years ago, Wakefield and colleagues suggested there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Their study included only 12 children, but wide media coverage set off a panic among parents. Vaccinations plummeted; there was a subsequent increase in U.K. measles cases.
In 2004, 10 of the study's 13 authors disavowed the findings. The Lancet, which originally published the paper, retracted it after learning that Wakefield -- prior to designing the study -- had accepted payment from lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers for causing autism.
Fitness to Practice
The GMC's Fitness to Practise panel heard evidence and submissions for 148 days over two and a half years, hearing from 36 witnesses. It then spent 45 days deciding the outcome of the hearing. Besides Wakefield, two former colleagues went before the panel -John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch. They were all found to have broken guidelines.
The disciplinary hearing found Wakefield showed a "callous disregard" for the suffering of children and abused his position of trust. He'd also "failed in his duties as a responsible consultant."
He'd taken blood samples from children attending his son's birthday party in return for money, and was later filmed joking about it at a conference.
He'd also failed to disclose he'd received money for advising lawyers acting for parents who claimed their children had been harmed by the triple vaccine.
Not Over Yet
The GMC will next decide whether Wakefield and his former colleagues committed serious professional misconduct. That could lead to being struck off the medical register. That decision may not be taken for several more months.
Wakefield wasn't in the hearing, but outside the GMC offices he told reporters, "Naturally I am extremely disappointed by the outcome of today's proceedings. The allegations against me and against my colleagues are both unfounded and unjust." He continued, "I invite anyone to examine the contents of these proceedings and come to their own conclusion."
Wakefield was cheered by a group of parents outside the hearing who are still sure he is right, even though his findings have been widely discredited.
"It remains for me to thank the parents whose commitment and loyalty has been extraordinary," he said. "I want to reassure them that science will continue in earnest."
Wakefield now works in the U.S. at an autism center called Thoughtful House, which he helped found. In a statement on its web site the center states that it is "disappointed" by the GMC decision, believing the charges against the three doctors were "unfounded and unfair."
On the web site's "frequently asked questions" the center asks: "Has Dr. Wakefield been accused of any breach of medical ethics while serving as the Executive Director of Thoughtful House?" The answer is "Absolutely not."
Safety of MMR Vaccine
The government and medical experts continue to stress that the MMR vaccine is safe.
The MMR triple vaccine was licensed in the U.S. in 1971 and first used in the U.K. in 1988. Over 100 countries now use it, and it is estimated that more than 500 million doses have been administered.
At the peak of the MMR scare in 2002, there were 1,531 articles about MMR in the U.K. national press; in 1998 there had been just 86.
Between 2001 and 2003, U.K. opinion polls showed that the percent of people believing the MMR vaccine to be safe dropped from over 70% to just over 50%.
U.K. Health Protection Agency figures show measles incidence increased dramatically following the drop in the number of children being vaccinated. The number of confirmed cases between 2007 and 2008 was 2,349, roughly equal to the combined total for the previous eleven years.
SOURCES: U.K. General Medical Council.