The controversy over the MMR vaccine, which continues to this day, will be studied by science communicators for years to come. The suggestion of a link between the vaccine and the onset of autism was first put forward by a team lead by Andrew Wakefield, and published in The Lancet in 1998. Now it appears that Wakefield may have fabricated the data on which the entire study was built.
Early in the course at Imperial, we examined the role of the media in this case. Wakefield and colleagues held a press conference to announce his findings, stating:
“It’s a moral issue for me. I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination, until this issue has been resolved.”
In class, we were asked to imagine ourselves as reporters at the press conference – what would our reaction to this news be? The answer was more or less unanimous: it’s headline news. If the Sunday Times’ allegations are true, then Wakefield knowingly acted to deceive and defraud his fellow scientists, the press, and the public at large.
The Sunday Times has found that the medical history of the 12 children presented in The Lancet differs from the corresponding hospital and GP records. Whilst Wakefield claimed that the children developed problems with in days of the jab, in all but one case was this true according to medical records. In fact, many of the children had shown signs of autism before vaccination.
Wakefield linked MMR to autism by suggesting that the vaccination could cause bowel disease in children, which then lead to damage in their brains. It was reported that 11 of the 12 children’s bowels were diseased, but the Sunday Times investigation shows that at least seven showed no abnormalities. It was only after a “research review” of the tests that Wakefield and his team decided that these results should be revised.
The selection of children for the study has also been brought into question. Two of the children were brothers from East Sussex, whilst a further two shared a GP in Tyneside. None of the 12 children came from London, nor were they routine visitors to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead. Many of the children’s parents had heard of Wakefield before though the MMR vaccine campaign, Jabs, compromising the scientific norm of a truly random sample.
It transpires that Wakefield himself was in the employ of Jabs’s lawyer Richard Barr. In June 1996, one month before the admittance of any of the children to the Royal Free, the pair sent a confidential document to the Legal Aid Board. It described a “new syndrome” suspiciously like the one reported in The Lancet twenty months later. They were successfully awarded money for research by the board.
The Sunday Times previously reported that in addition to research funding, Wakefield earned £435,643 through Barr.
Are these the actions of a man who’s interest is in uncovering scientific truth? To date, no one has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings. As I said last week: please, vaccinate your children.