A 1998 paper linking autism to vaccines, which set off a panic about childhood vaccination that continues today, was based on data falsification, according to an investigation by a journalist at the British Medical Journal (BMJ) who has spent years examining the original research. In a harsh editorial that calls the paper "fraudulent," BMJ editors recommend that other publications by the senior author, gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, be scrutinized because "past experience tells us that research misconduct is rarely isolated behaviour."
The investigation, by journalist Brian Deer, focuses on alleged alterations of medical records for the 12 children in the study. Among other things, it charges that preexisting symptoms the children had were "played down" to build a case that they'd had a serious reaction to the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Medical "records cannot be reconciled with what was published" in The Lancet, the journal where the study appeared, Deer writes in what's billed as the first in a series in BMJ.
His report is another strike against the already-retracted research, which was led by Wakefield. A 2002 study failed to replicate the findings; the British General Medical Council spent 2.5 years investigating and a year ago concluded that Wakefield's conduct was "dishonest" and "misleading." The Lancet retracted the paper, and Wakefield lost his license to practice medicine in the United Kingdom.
While the latest allegations go even further, it's unclear what practical impact they'll have. An anti-vaccine activist who co-founded one of the most outspoken groups that links autism to vaccines, Generation Rescue, took to the airwaves of CNN yesterday, when the BMJ investigation was released, to defend the link and argue that other studies have reported one. "To represent that the science has been done on this and we should move on is simply untrue," said J.B. Handley. It looks as though for now, little may change.