This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
Twelve years ago, a research paper published in the prominent British medical journal The Lancet set off a firestorm whose damaging effects are still being felt today.
The paper suggested a link between a greater risk of autism and the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine routinely given to young children. Finally, parents had an answer to the mystery of why their children were afflicted by the disorder.
Only it wasn’t the right answer.
The Lancet has now retracted the 1998 paper, saying the lead author had been dishonest, violated research rules, and had subjected the 12 children involved with his study to needless suffering and procedures such as lumbar punctures and colonoscopies.
Dr. Andrew Wakefield recommended that the combined vaccine be split into three separate shots. But he didn’t disclose that a year earlier he had patented a measles vaccine that could be used if the combined vaccine were discredited. Nor did he reveal that his research was partly funded by lawyers of parents seeking to sue vaccine makers.
Unbelievably, Wakefield is still practicing in the field. He oversees research at a treatment center for developmentally disabled children in Austin, Texas.
Despite the retraction by The Lancet, much damage has been done – and cannot be undone. Publication of the study raised the specter of a vaccination threat, and scores of parents since have refused to allow their children to be immunized against easily preventable diseases. And even though study after study has found no link between vaccinations and autism, many parents are still more willing to believe the one, small, now-discredited study that supposedly did.
Any vaccination bears a slight risk of complications; that is to be weighed against the enormous benefits of immunizing children against the kinds of diseases that used to kill so many. But no studies have found that those complications include autism.
Parents who oppose immunization because they give credence to the discredited Lancet study could be endangering their children’s lives. They should take their cues from the scores of medical researchers who have criticized the study and supported childhood immunization.