Report linking autism to vaccines is retracted by medical journal

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Twelve years after Dr. Andrew Wakefield published his research in the international medical journal the Lancet purporting that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine may be linked to autism, the journal on Tuesday formally retracted the paper.

The action came less than a week after the U.K. General Medical Council’s Fitness to Practice Panel concluded that Wakefield had provided false information in the report and acted with “callous disregard” for the children in the study. The council is now considering whether Wakefield is guilty of serious professional misconduct. A positive finding could cause him to lose his medical practice.

FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this online article stated that Dr. Andrew Wakefield practices in Austin, Texas; he does not practice medicine in the United States but conducts research here. It also stated that Wakefield said he couldn’t recommend that parents have their children vaccinated; he instead advised that children receive the vaccinations against measles, mumps and rubella separately. The article and one of its headlines also stated that his paper said the vaccine causes autism. His paper suggested a possible link; it did not establish a cause.

Wakefield’s study, conducted on only 12 children, concluded that there may be a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. He subsequently advised that children receive the vaccinations against each disease seperately.

His words and actions led to a sharp drop in vaccination rates in both Britain and the United States and a resurgence in measles. Despite multiple subsequent studies that have refuted the link, vaccination rates have remained lower than they were before his report, and many parents remain concerned about the potential effects of the lifesaving vaccines.

“This will help to restore faith in this globally important vaccine and in the integrity of the scientific literature,” Dr. Fiona Goodlee, editor of the BMJ -- formerly the British Medical Journal -- said Tuesday in a statement. On Monday, Goodlee had joined the chorus of scientists urging Lancet to withdraw the paper.

The original report “was outrageous,” said Dr. Jeffrey Boscamp of the Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. “Most of the authors asked for their names to be removed from the study. It’s unfortunate that it undermined confidence in vaccines when in fact it wasn’t true at all.”

Wakefield said the accusations against him were “unfounded” and “unjust.” Other researchers, however, are happy to put the episode behind them so they can go on with the difficult task of finding the true causes of the disorder.