Recent allegations in the British Medical Journal claim that a 1998 research paper, which led to widespread public concern about a potential link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination and autism, was an "elaborate fraud". In 1998, The Lancet, a British medical journal, published a scientific research paper led by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that raised questions as to whether the MMR vaccine played a role in the symptoms of 12 children who appeared to exhibit signs of autism, a developmental disorder that can affect communication and social interactions.
Did You Know?
It is estimated that approximately three to six out of every 1,000 children have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
While Dr. Wakefield admitted at the time that his research couldn’t even prove a “casual association” between MMR and autism, he openly questioned the safety of the childhood vaccine, planting doubt in the minds of the public. In an effort to reproduce Dr. Wakefield's research and to find out whether his claims had merit, more than 20 scientific studies took place worldwide, testing the proposed link between vaccines and autism. None of these studies could support the findings published in The Lancet.
While the merit of this research was being tested and eventually called into question, theories arose about why a link could exist. One hypothesis was that the preservative thermisol used in some vaccines could be potentially poisonous to the nervous system, or that the MMR vaccine could possibly damage the intestinal lining and release toxins, or perhaps that giving multiple doses of a vaccine could weaken the immune system of a young child.
Did You Know?
In British Columbia, children typically receive their first MMR vaccine when they're one year old, and the second dose at one and a half.
Thanks to an ongoing investigation by journalist Brian Deer from 2004 until 2011, it was slowly revealed that Dr. Wakefield and his research team used the paper for personal gain and were ultimately unethical and irresponsible in their practices.
Based on Deer’s allegations, the General Medical Council in Britain investigated Dr. Wakefield and his research team. They learned that Dr. Wakefield did not disclose the recruitment process for children in the study, that tests were performed that were not in the "clinical interest of the children", and that anti-vaccination groups paid Dr. Wakefield more than $400,000 during his “research”. Dr. Wakefield and another lead author on the study were stripped of their medical licenses. The Lancet also retracted the controversial paper.
Did You Know?
Thermisol is made from a non-toxic form of mercury. It is added to some vaccines to prevent contamination and infection after injection. While there is no scientific link between thermisol and childhood illness, the preservative has been removed from childhood vaccines in Canada as a precaution.
The most recent claims by Deer in the British Medical Journal indicate that data may have been manipulated by Wakefield to show that 8 kids developed their behavioural problems within days of receiving the vaccine. The kids’ official medical records show otherwise. While the science in the study wasn’t necessarily “bad science”, the unethical way in which it was conducted is unacceptable in the scientific community, which relies on trust and transparency.
This story proves how important objectivity is in researchers and how necessary the peer review process is for publishing research.
British Medial Journal Article by Brian Deer
Health Link BC: MMR Vaccine
The Globe and Mail: Medical fraud revealed in discredited vaccine-autism study
Public Health Agency of Canada: Thimerosal in Vaccines and Autism
Article first published March 15, 2011.