Lancet Retracts Wakefield Paper

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

The Lancet has retracted publication of a 1998 paper [1] whose authors—led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield—suggested that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine might be linked to autism. The paper didn't declare that cause-and-effect had been demonstrated, but at the press conference announcing its publication, Wakefield attacked the triple vaccine; and he has continued to do so ever since.

Lancet's "official" retraction states:

Following the judgment of the UK General Medical Council's Fitness to Practise Panel on Jan 28, 2010, it has become clear that several elements of the 1998 paper by Wakefield et al are incorrect, contrary to the findings of an earlier investigation. In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were "consecutively referred" and that investigations were "approved" by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false. Therefore we fully retract this paper from the published record [4].

The paper remains publicly visible, but the online version displays the word "RETRACTED" in bright red letters on every page of the PDF version.

 

The full retraction came five days after The British General Medical Council (GMC), which registers doctors in the United Kingdom, reported that Wakefield had acted dishonestly, irresponsibly, unethically, and callously in connection with the research project and its subsequent publication [2]. Wakefield's misconduct was brought to light by Brian Deer, one of the world's toughest investigative reporters.

In 2004, ten of the study's authors issued a "retraction" which stated: "We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between MMR vaccine and autism as the data were insufficient." [3] Lancet editor Richard Horton—after Deer provided the incriminating evidence—said he should not have published the study and that Wakefield's links to litigation against the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine were a "fatal conflict of interest." [4] But full retraction had to wait nearly six more years.

The GMC hearings, which began in July 2007, centered on Wakefield's 1998 report. Many studies have found no connections [5,6], but sensational publicity caused immunization rates in the UK to drop more than 10 percent and have left lingering doubts among parents worldwide.

The GMC began investigating after learning from Deer that Wakefield had failed to declare he had been paid £55,000 to advise lawyers representing parents who believed that the vaccine had harmed their children. The GMC found that Wakefield had:

The GMC panel concluded that the allegations against Wakefield could amount to "serious professional misconduct." During the investigation, Wakefield relocated to Austin, Texas, where he helped found Thoughtful House Center for Children, a "nonprofit" clinic that offers many unsubstantiated treatments for autism. He does not have a medical license but oversees the clinic's research program. The clinic's latest (2008) tax filing lists his salary as $270,000 [7].

The scientific community applauded the GMC ruling. Wakefield's followers denied that he had done anything wrong. Wakefield himself—as brazen as he is unethical—denied wrongdoing and encouraged people to read the GMC report and decide for themselves. The most incisive comment was written by Tim Ellis for The Huffington Post, which normally favors antivaccination views. It says in part:

Let's look at that Lancet quote again, shall we? "In particular, the claims in the original paper that children were 'consecutively referred' and that investigations were 'approved' by the local ethics committee have been proven to be false." Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe there's a word for claims that people make which are then proven false— lies.

There are any number of words for the people who make them.

One more time, just so nobody misses the point here—Andrew Wakefield lied to you. He lied, and because of his lies, children are dead [8].

Paul Offit, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said: "This retraction by the Lancet came far too late. It's very easy to scare people; it's very hard to unscare them." [9]

In May 2010, the GMC decided that Wakefield should be struck from the medical register [10]. Unless he appeals, he will be permanently banned from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. Wakefield said he would appeal and issued a lengthy, convoluted book denying that that he did anything wrong. But Harriet Hall, M.D described the book this way:

In my opinion, the whole book is an embarrassing, tedious, puerile, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at damage control. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited in the scientific arena and he is reduced to seeking a second opinion from the public. Perhaps he thinks that the truth can be determined by a popularity contest. Perhaps he thinks the future will look back at him as a persecuted genius like Galileo or Semmelweis. Jenny McCarthy thinks so; I don't [11].

References

  1. Wakefield AJ and others. Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet 351:37-641, 1998.
  2. Fitness to Practice Panel Hearing. General Medical Council, Jan 28, 2010.
  3. Murch SH and others. Retraction of an interpretation. Lancet 363:750, 2004.
  4. Deer B. Revealed: The MMR research scandal. The Sunday Times (London), Feb 24, 2004.
  5. Autism and vaccines. Autism Science Foundation, accessed Feb 4, 2010.
  6. Buie G and others. Evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of gastrointestinal disorders in individuals with ASDs: A consensus report. Pediatrics 125: S1-S18, 2010.
  7. Form 990. Thoughtful House Center for Children, 2008.
  8. Ellis T. Waking up from the Wakefield nightmare. The Huffington Post, Feb 3, 2010.
  9. Offit P. Quoted in Wang SS. Lancet Retracts Study Tying Vaccine to Autism. Wall Street Journal Online, Feb 3, 2010.
  10. Andrew Jeremy Wakefield: Determination on serious professional misconduct (SPM) and sanction. GMC, May 24, 2010.
  11. Hall H. Andrew Wakefield fights back. Science-Based Medicine Blog, May 28, 2010.

This article was revised on May 29, 2010.

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