By Aakash Jain ’14
British researcher Andrew Wakefield published a paper, “MMR vaccination and autism,” in The Lancet, Feb. 28,1998, proposing a strong correlation between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, autism, and a form of inflammatory bowel disease he called Autistic enterocolitis.
In the paper, Wakefield emphasized the relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism was unclear.
However, in a press conference held at the Royal Free Hospital in London, Wakefield advocated for the indefinite suspension of the MMR triple vaccine in favor of three single vaccines until further research could be conducted.
“I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines given in combination until this issue has been resolved,” he said.
Wakefield’s actions, later criticized as “science by press conference,” led to extensive media coverage of his research and fueled the MMR vaccination scare. A news video released by the Royal Free Hospital added to mounting public turmoil.
Likely as a direct result, vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella in Great Britain plummeted from 92 percent to 72 percent and an estimated 125,000 U.S. children born in the 1990s did not receive the MMR vaccine, according to the Associated Press.
Controversy gained momentum when Wakefield released papers in 2001 and 2002 further criticizing the standard immunization schedule, and he resigned from the Royal Free Hospital in December 2001.
In February of 2004, Wakefield was accused of a conflict of interest by Brian Deer of The Sunday Times, who reported that the Royal Free Hospital received £55,000 from the Legal Aid Board to fund Wakefield’s research.
Wakefield was charged with serious professional misconduct by the U.K. General Medical Council, and The Lancet responded to the investigation in a public statement, describing Wakefield’s research as “fatally flawed.”
Between July 2007 and May 2010, the GMC examined charges of dishonesty, immoral research methods, and conflicts of interest against Wakefield and two of his colleagues.
Jan. 28, 2010, the GMC ruled against Wakefield on all issues and Feb. 2, 2010, The Lancet formally retracted Wakefield’s 1998 paper.
May 24, 2010 he was formally removed from the United Kingdom medical register. The same day, Wakefield published his autobiography, entitled Callous Disregard.
As of now, the consensus in the scientific community is that Wakefield manipulated his data to suggest a causative relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine when none existed.
Attempts to validate Wakefield’s research have been fruitless, and seven studies conducted between 2004 and 2009 in the U.K. and Japan have provided strong evidence that it is unlikely the MMR vaccine causes autism.
Though it is likely his research was flawed and possibly fabricated, it is important to remember that Wakefield never actually opposed vaccination for measles, mumps, and rubella, but rather called for a change in the standard immunization schedule.
The immense drop in MMR vaccination in the U.K. and U.S. demonstrates how panic and fear can influence the public.
“His falsified claims of the connection of vaccines to autism have resulted in an erroneous public movement by some parents to stop vaccinating their children, which has resulted in injury and in some cases even death,” said Mrs. Cheryl Lenox, Brophy’s science department chair. “Some might go so far as to say Mr. Wakefield is responsible for the death of many children; the indirect murder of our children is a grave wrong no matter how you look at it.”
Whether Wakefield’s paper was fraudulent or not, we cannot be certain.
Regardless, the fact remains that millions of cases of measles, mumps, and rubella are avoided each year due to the MMR vaccine, while the total number of autistic children diagnosed totals to a few tens of thousands.
Three single vaccines administered independently, as Wakefield originally suggested, may in fact be the safest immunization regimen.
However, if his opponents are correct in their criticisms, Wakefield’s actions are unacceptable and immoral, regardless of whether he had good intentions or not.
“If the accusations against Andrew Wakefield prove to be accurate then a true failure of science has occurred,” Mrs. Lenox said.