Two weeks ago, the prestigious medical journal Lancet retracted a 1998 article that purported to show a link between childhood vaccines and autism. The article stimulated a decade-long debate about vaccine safety, and the Lancet’s retraction effectively ended reasonable scientific discourse on the subject: the vaccines are safe.
Ten of 13 authors of the paper had issued a partial retraction 6 years ago, but the first author, Andrew Wakefield, did not.
Wakefield’s study had focused on 12 children that had gastrointestinal problems. Eight had symptoms that their parents or a doctor thought were caused by the MMR vaccine, and 9 exhibited autistic behaviors.
That study triggered widespread concern that measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism. Parents decided against immunizing their children as a result. Roughly 2.1% of US children weren’t immunized with the MMR vaccine in 2000, nearly triple the rate of 0.77% in 1995, according to a study in Pediatrics.
This occurred despite the publication of several subsequent studies which showed that vaccines were safe. The most notable among these were a 2004 review of the literature by the Institute of Medicine and a 2008 study by the CDC which looked specifically at children with GI problems.
“This retraction by the Lancet came far too late,” Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s very easy to scare people; it’s very hard to unscare them.”
The Lancet pulled the plug after a UK-based health care regulator concluded the Wakefield study was bogus. The General Medical Council’s report included allegations of ethical violations by some investigators, including “cherry-picking” children for the study, rather than taking kids as they presented randomly to the hospital, as had been implied in the paper.