Controversial Vaccine-Autism Study Discredited

In the wake of the scandal incited by a spurious 1998 study, The Lancet editor enlists the help of the health care community to back vaccinations.

Last week, an announcement by the British medical journal The Lancet put the nail in the coffin on a high-profile study linking autism with the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

After a panel conducted by Britain’s General Medical Council decried the researcher’s methods, calling them “irresponsible” and “unethical,” The Lancet issued a full retraction of the 12-year-old paper.

The specific charges against Andrew Wakefield, MD, substantially discredit the vaccine-autism link he supposedly discovered in 1998. Without ethical approval or appropriate qualifications, Wakefield performed painful, intrusive tests—including lumbar punctures, the Guardian reports—on already sick children.

Further incriminating Wakefield are a series of patent applications filed by the doctor for his own MMR vaccine, as well as a previous lawsuit involving the study’s participants, several of whose parents suspected their children had been permanently harmed by the MMR vaccine.

For many parents, Wakefield’s research and rhetoric sparked suspicion that bred confidence so powerful, it fueled a decade-long antivaccine campaign that seemed impervious to scientific inquiry. In the years since the study’s original publication, his findings have been refuted by numerous studies, to little avail. Despite repeated urgings from physicians, medical researchers, and health organizations to continue childhood vaccinations, many parents opted out, citing concerns about vaccines’ mercury content and autism spectrum disorders as primary deterrents.

In interviews with the Guardian and National Public Radio, Lancet editor Richard Horton reported feeling “deceived” by Wakefield, and acknowledged the need for reform in scientific publishing to prevent fraudulent studies from being publicized in the future. Issues that are likely to incite widespread panic must be carefully reported and investigated, Horton believes, and the publication of “speculative research” should be more tightly regulated.

Horton also called on professionals in the medical and scientific community to help repair vaccines’ tarnished image. “We are going to see many, many more vaccines available to the general public,” Horton said, “and we all have to be very vigilant about making sure that we build trust and confidence in these vaccines, which are going to transform the landscape of health over the next generation.”

Through informed patient counseling and education, pharmacists can play a key role in the ongoing effort to mitigate the long-term effects of Wakefield’s research. For more information about vaccine safety and preventable diseases, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s robust online vaccination resource center.

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