Yesterday, editors at The Lancet officially retracted the British medical journal's 12-year-old study that they say incorrectly linked the combination Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism.
The retraction of the 1998 study comes less than a week after the General Medical Council of the United Kingdom chastised the Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his co-authors for acting "dishonestly and irresponsibly" in doing his research for the study, which claimed that eight out of 12 children who received the MMR vaccine began showing symptoms of autism within days of getting the shot.
Last year, The Sunday Times of London published an in-depth report which alleges that Dr. Wakefield and his co-authors, John Walker-Smith and Simon Murch, fabricated much of their research by manipulating the patients' data. According to the Times report:
In most of the 12 cases, the children's ailments as described in The Lancet were different from their hospital and GP records. Although the research paper claimed that problems came on within days of the jab, in only one case did medical records suggest this was true, and in many of the cases medical concerns had been raised before the children were vaccinated. Hospital pathologists, looking for inflammatory bowel disease, reported in the majority of cases that the gut was normal. This was then reviewed and the Lancet paper showed them as abnormal.
Soon after the study was published in 1998, cases of measles in England skyrocketed and, even though Dr. Wakefield's research focused on just 12 patients, its results have been the basis for much of the anti-vaccination movement worldwide.
According to a BBC report, Dr. Wakefield, a gastroenterologist, was neither ethically cleared nor qualified to perform invasive tests, like spinal taps, on the children in his study. He also paid children at his son's birthday party to provide blood samples, and failed to disclose that "he had been paid to advise solicitors acting for parents who believed their children had been harmed by the MMR."
Jenny McCarthy's autism foundation, Generation Rescue, issued a statement last week in support of Dr. Wakefield, in which it accuses the General Medical Council of trying to cover up the link between vaccines and autism and spanks the media for allowing it to happen. "The sole purpose of the GMC's ruling this week is to try and quell the growing concern of parents that the expanding vaccine schedule and the remarkable rise in autism are correlated," the statement reads. "The GMC will no doubt be helped by a press that barely understands the debate and has never read any of the dozens of studies published by Dr. Wakefield in many different respected medical journals."
At The Huffington Post, David Kirby calls The Lancet's retraction "unwanted and overwrought" and writes that "there are now at least six published legal or scientific cases of children regressing into ASD following vaccination -- and many more will be revealed in due time." While he agrees that vaccines are not the only contributing factor, he points out that "more than 1,300 cases of vaccine injuries have been paid out in vaccine court, in which the court ruled that childhood immunizations caused encephalopathy (brain disease), encephalitis (brain swelling) and/or seizure disorders. ... If we know that vaccines can cause these injuries, is it not reasonable to ask if they can cause similar injuries that lead to autism?"
As I've written before, no one really knows what causes autism. Children who were extremely premature are thought to be at higher risk for autism. In 2008, some studies showed a possible link between autism and certain metabolic diseases. An article in Science Direct indicates that children living near toxic waste seem more likely to be on the spectrum. Some believe that the preservative Thimerosal, formerly used in many vaccines, could trigger a toxic tipping point, damaging the immune system; others think that administering several vaccines simultaneously could be the trigger. Others blame "toxic synergy," in which many of the so-called "harmless" chemicals and additives in everyday food, medications, and consumer products become toxic when heated or combined. (Randall Fitzgerald's book, The Hundred-Year Lie: How Food and Medicine are Destroying Your Health, does a great job of explaining the concept.) And, of course, there's the possibility of a genetic link.
Parents, does The Lancet's retraction or the GMC's reprimand of Dr. Wakefield make you think differently about vaccinating -- or not vaccinating -- your child? Why or why not?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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