BMJ: Autism study a 'fraud,' has caused lasting damage

The British Medical Journal has condemned the first study linking vaccines to autism, which experts now say was based on fraudulent data and has caused widespread damage to public health.

In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study in the Lancet that claimed to identify a link between the vaccine for measles, mumps (MMR) and rubella and autism. For the study, Wakefield and colleagues at the Royal Free Hospital in London examined 12 children, seven of whom developed symptoms of autism shortly after receiving the MMR vaccine and all of whom experienced intestinal inflammation. In the study, Wakefield suggested that the combined MMR vaccine might be unsafe and recommended that the vaccine be administered to children in three separate shots over a longer period of time.

The study has been widely discredited for the lack of controls, the linking of three common conditions and the reliance on parental recall. The Lancet retracted the article in February 2010, and 10 of the original 13 authors have denounced it.

New report finds Wakefield falsified data

For the BMJ report, journalist Brian Deer compared the study subjects' hospital records with reported diagnoses and found that Wakefield and colleagues altered patient data for their report. For example, Wakefield's study reported that all 12 children were normal until they received the MMR vaccination; however, five had previously been diagnosed with developmental issues. Deer also found that only one of the nine children who Wakefield claimed had regressive autism actually did, and three did not have the condition.

Editorial deems Wakefield study 'elaborate fraud'

In an accompanying editorial, BMJ Editor-in-Chief Fiona Godlee called the study an "elaborate fraud," AP/NPR reports.The editorial also alleges that Wakefield had a financial incentive to perpetrate fraud because he was hired by attorneys trying to sue the vaccine's manufacturer.

Noting that the study was "full of error," the editorial states that "the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession."

Study's lasting public health impact

Efforts to condemn the study may come too late to dissuade many individuals who believe its findings, according to Paul Offit, the chief of infectious disease at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. The results already have fueled "fear" and "concern" about vaccines that have led to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, ABC News reports. Ari Brown, a Texas-based pediatrician, notes that the "damage that occurred over those years as a result of these concerns [including] deaths … cannot be reversed."

According to David Amaral, a research director at the University of California-Davis, the "most destructive" result of the study is that it undermined the "public's confidence in the integrity of science" (Godlee et al., BMJ, 1/5; AP/NPR, 1/5; Maugh, "Booster Shots," Los Angeles Times, 1/5; CNN, 1/6; Salahi, ABC News, 1/5).