Editorial: MMR vaccine & science fraud

Published in The Hindu on January 25, 2011

A 1998 paper linking a measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine with a ‘new syndrome’ of autism and bowel disease was retracted by The Lancet in February 2010. The retraction came after the U.K. General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practise Panel conducted a 217-day hearing and found Andrew J. Wakefield, the lead author of the paper, guilty of dishonesty in relation to “the study’s admissions criteria, its funding by the Legal Aid Board, and his statements about it afterwards.” Deep-going investigation by Brian Deer, a journalist based in London, and published online recently as a series in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), has revealed that the researcher from the Royal Free Hospital and School of Medicine, London, whose licence to practise has been revoked by the GMC, indulged in acts that went far beyond dishonesty as specified by the GMC. For instance, the critical data of all the 12 children included in the study had been “misrepresented or altered,” especially the symptoms and the timeline when the symptoms first showed up. Dr. Wakefield’s conflict of interest included a patent for a diagnostic test to “detect a new syndrome — autistic enterocolitis.” The doctor also stood to gain financially from the proposed development of the test kit and a ‘safer’ vaccine. The journalist has revealed how Dr. Wakefield had the support of his institution when he sought to exploit the MMR scare for financial gain.

Dr. Wakefield’s research will remain a textbook case of how falsified medical research involving 12 handpicked children can discredit the safety of a vaccine used for a few decades on millions of children. Scientists were quick to point out the flaws in the paper. No study has been able to replicate his work, and more than a dozen large-scale studies have found no link between the two. Yet it took more than a decade to fully expose the science fraud owing to the inexplicable failure of several institutions and individuals. The fallout of the 1998 study has been severe in some developed countries — public fear has been whipped up, and suspicion about a link between MMR vaccine and autism strengthened. Measles, once considered eradicated in the United States, emerged with a vengeance in 2008 when 131 cases were reported, double the annual average for the previous six years. The same year, England and Wales declared measles as an endemic, the first time in 14 years. Although signs of autism appear around the same time children receive the MMR vaccine, there is an urgent need to educate the public that no link has been found between the two. Awareness-building is all the more important as Dr. Wakefield continues to defend his work.