Doctor Who Linked Autism to Vaccines Accused of 'Deliberate Fraud'

Filed under: In The News, Health

Autism Vaccine picture

With the retraction of the MMR-autism study, there is no scientific evidence linking the two. Credit: Getty

If you're one of the increasing number of parents who cite "conscientious objection" to have the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) or other vaccines waived for your child, today's news may have you rethinking your stance.

An investigation by prominent medical journal BMJ reveals the decade-long effort to link childhood vaccines to autism was actually an elaborate hoax by a British doctor who was banned from practicing medicine last year, Newsday reports.

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in the British medical journal The Lancet that linked the MMR vaccine to autism and stomach problems in 12 children and pointed to an allegedly new bowel-brain "syndrome," according to Newsday.

Despite many researchers condemning the study as "shoddy science," Wakefield's report sent shock waves around the world, and resulted in falling immunization rates in both the United States and Britain. In turn, there has been an increase in measles, one of the diseases the MMR shot is designed to prevent, Newsday says.

Last year, The Lancet issued a formal retraction of Wakefield's study after a close re-examination of the data and Wakefield was subsequently barred from practicing medicine in the U.K. by Britain's General Medical Council in May 2010.

Wakefield contended the MMR vaccine caused both gut problems and regressive autism, which is characterized by children who appear normal before age 1 or 2, and then suddenly "regress," losing language or social skills they had previously gained, according to the National Institutes of Health.

BMJ reports Wakefield -- who is neither a pediatrician, neurologist nor gastroenterologist -- identified the new "syndrome" even before he began to collect data, and alleges Wakefield's theory was put forth only after he had been hired to work on a lawsuit to sue the maker of the vaccine.

Details from the BMJ report demonstrate many instances of unethical conduct in Wakefield's study.

Only one of the 12 children studied was diagnosed with regressive autism, and three children did not have a diagnosis of autism at all. In addition, the children were not part of a random sample; instead, they were selected because they had symptoms that were consistent with the "syndrome" and some of them seemed to have been recruited by anti-vaccination activists.

When the children's symptoms did not fit Wakefield's hypothesis, he changed timelines so that it looked as if the autism symptoms developed soon after the MMR vaccination, even when parents and others reported the children had shown signs of autism prior to receiving the shot.

In fact, when BMJ investigators showed the study data to parents of children involved in Wakefield's study, many of them were said to be shocked, insisting that his accounts of their children's cases were outright wrong, Newsday reports.

In some cases, these timelines were shrunk down so the symptoms appeared to develop days, instead of months, after the vaccine.

Gastrointestinal symptoms were exaggerated, so they looked to be more significant than they really were.

One girl in the study, who appeared to have slowed development, actually was diagnosed with a genetic medical condition, which was corrected and resulted in her speech and behavior returning to a normal developmental pace.

"This is about as unethical as you can get," Dr. Max Wiznitzer, a child neurologist with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital in Cleveland, tells Newsday.

In addition to the harm brought upon children whose parents elected not to give them the MMR vaccine as a result of Wakefield's study, experts note the alleged fraud may have also set back autism research, Newsday reports.

"We had a measles epidemic in Britain, a drop in immunization rates in (the United States). I personally know of children who were brain-damaged as a consequence of their parents deferring immunization as a result of this concern," Wiznitzer says.

At the same time, he tells Newsday, "(autism) research monies were diverted to disprove a hypothesis that was never proven (in the first place) rather than invested in exploring issues that would be of benefit to the public and to children with the condition."

Although the BMJ report suggests Wakefield acted out of greed, Wiznitzer tells Newsday he thinks there may be more to it.

"I think he truly believes what he's doing," he says.

Newsday reports Wakefield's website shows he is currently living in Austin, Texas, promoting his book published last year, "Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines, The Truth Behind a Tragedy," and doing speaking engagements.

In May, after he was banned from practicing medicine in the U.K., Wakefield appeared on NBC's "Today" show, referring to the ban as "a little bump in the road" and vowing his research would continue.

"I am most certainly not going away," Wakefield told "Today."

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