On the Needle: The MMR Vaccine Myth

Diane Sun | Director of Communications

To coincide with our Sciences Research Panel this week, we’ll be posting a three-part blog series this week about scientific misconduct. The first concerns falsifying research and the ramifications it has on the wider public. 

The story of one of the most notorious case of scientific misconduct begins in 1998, in an study published in the British journal Lancet. The succinctly named study, Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children, had an innocent premise. The author, Andrew Wakefield, explored the link between the MMR vaccine and cases of autism in children.  His findings became widely publicized by the national media, emboldening opponents of vaccination and convincing thousands that vaccines were unsafe.

In reality, his findings were terribly incorrect. Wakefield had abused his authority as a researchers and violated the trust that society places in its experts.

A series of reviews in 2004 found that he had grossly violated ethical standards by manipulating subjects’ data and needlessly performing invasive procedures on the children involved. He also had several financial conflicts of interest that were never disclosed.

Wakefield recruited children for his study through anti-MMR activists, which indicated a clear bias in his results. Five of the twelve children recruited for his study had already displayed signs of developmental disorders prior to receiving the vaccine; he intentionally excluded mentioning this in his paper. He also misrepresented data on his observations of the children, creating symptoms of colon inflammation where there were none and reporting false autism diagnoses.

Wakefield was likely motivated by greed. He applied for grants with his fabricated autism-MMR syndrome “before the project which would reputedly discover it.” Moreover, he failed to disclose that he was paid over £430,000 by anti-MMR litigators over the course of two years. Unsurprisingly, Wakefield’s conclusions supported the lawyers’ case in the lawsuit. Wakefield also made moves to start the company Immunospecifics Biotechnologies with the parent of a child from the study. The company would sell diagnostic tests and a competing type of vaccine, capitalizing on Wakefield’s fake studies and the fear and suspicion his research generated.

Today, Andrew Wakefield is discredited among the scientific community. Lancet retracted the paper’s findings section in 2004 and then the entire paper in 2010. The British Medical Council has since revoked his medical license, for, among other things, “taking blood samples for his study from children at his son’s birthday party.” (Don’t invite him to any baby showers.)

While Wakefield ultimately received his comeuppance, irreparable damage was done to public health education. His paper spawned an anti-vaccination movement that far outlastedd the paper itself, and its findings remain accepted by a formidable portion of the population, and his conclusions are cited by everyone from journalists to political figures. Consequently, once-eradicated diseases have re-emerged, not coincidentally in communities with high proportions of anti-vaccine advocates.

In the end, Wakefield’s story illustrates why ethics is so important in research. Occasionally, the repercussions of misconduct are limited to the paper’s authors, but more often than not, there the entire society suffers.

You can read Brian Deer’s full investigation of Wakefield’s MMR study here. Featured photo from HealthTap.com


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