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Six year media investigation forces the Lancet retraction of fraudulent research

This page is research from an award-winning investigation, concluding in 2011, by Brian Deer for The Sunday Times of London into a campaign linking the MMR children's vaccine with autism based on fraudulent research by British former doctor Andrew Wakefield

Claims of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism were published in a paper in The Lancet medical journal in February 1998, authored by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others at a London hospital. As a result of Brian Deer's investigation, on 3 March 2004, the paper was partially retracted, and, six years later, on 2 February 2010, it was fully retracted. The full retraction followed findings against Wakefield by a statutory tribunal of the UK's General Medical Council of dishonesty and unethical conduct in the research



2004

By EMMA ROSS, AP Medical Writer

LONDON - Most of the scientists involved in widely discredited 1998 study suggesting a link between childhood vaccinations and autism have renounced the conclusion.

Ten of the study's 13 authors have signed a formal retraction, the text of which was released Wednesday by The Lancet ahead of its publication later this week in the British medical journal.

The retraction follows the recent revelation that the main author was being paid separately by lawyers for parents who claimed their children were harmed by the immunizations. Some of the children involved in the lawsuit were also involved in the study.

The study undermined public confidence in the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella by suggesting it might be linked to autism.

MMR vaccination rates fell dramatically in Britain and several other European nations and have yet to recover, although subsequent studies dismissed a connection between autism and the vaccine. "We wish to make it clear that in this paper no causal link was established between (the) vaccine and autism, as the data were insufficient. However, the possibility of such a link was raised," the scientists said in the retraction.

"Consequent events have had major implications for public health. In view of this, we consider now is the appropriate time that we should together formally retract the interpretation placed on these findings in the paper," the group wrote.

The study, involving 12 children, was conducted about eight years after they had been vaccinated and was based in large part on parents remembering whether the autism symptoms occurred around the same time as the shots.

The main author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who at the time was working at the Royal Free Hospital in London, is among those who have not signed the retraction. He could not be reached for comment. However, he has continued to insist the study was valid, despite the findings of authoritative groups such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Institute of Medicine.

The scientists signing the retraction work for institutions that include the Royal Free Hospital, the Institute of Child Health in Liverpool, England, and Cambridge University.


2010

Lancet retracts 'utterly false' MMR paper

After medical council ruling last week that MMR doctor Andrew
Wakefield was dishonest, journal finally quashes paper

Sarah Boseley, Health editor,

Tuesday 2 February 2010

The Lancet medical journal today finally retracted the paper that sparked a crisis in MMR vaccination across the UK, after the General Medical Council found that its lead author, Andrew Wakefield, had been dishonest.

Lancet editor Richard Horton told the Guardian today that he realised as soon as he read the GMC findings that the paper, published in February 1998, had to be retracted. "It was utterly clear, without any ambiguity at all, that the statements in the paper were utterly false," he said. "I feel I was deceived."

Many in the scientific and medical community have been pressing for the paper, linking the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) jab to bowel disease and autism, to be quashed. But Horton said he did not have the evidence to do so before the end of the GMC investigation last Thursday.

In 2004, when concerns were first raised about the conduct of the study, the Lancet asked the Royal Free hospital, where Wakefield and his fellow authors worked, to investigate.

But Professor Humphrey Hodgson, then vice dean of the Royal Free and University College school of medicine, wrote to the journal to say it had found no problems. "We are entirely satisfied that the investigations performed on children reported in the Lancet paper had been subjected to appropriate and rigorous ethical scrutiny," he said at that time.

The GMC last week disagreed. Children had been subjected to invasive procedures that were not warranted, a disciplinary panel ruled. They had undergone lumbar punctures and other tests solely for research purposes and without valid ethical approval.

Wakefield "was dishonest", said Horton. "He deceived the journal." The Lancet had done what it could to establish that the research was valid, by having it peer-reviewed. But there is a limit, he said, to what peer-review can ascertain.

"Peer review is the best system we have got for checking accuracy and acceptability of work, but unless we went into the lab or examined every case record, we can't ever finally rule out some element of misconduct.

"The entire system depends upon trust. Most of the time we think it works well, but there will be a few instances – and when they happen they are huge instances – where the whole thing falls apart."

When journals have suspicions of fraud or misconduct, they have to refer them to the institution employing the scientists. "We rely on the processes within institutions to investigate allegations of fraud, and if they are found to be wanting, that is extremely disappointing," he said.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, GP and author of books on the MMR scare, said the retraction was "good news – only 10 years too late".

Dr David Elliman, consultant in community child health at Great Ormond Street hospital, said it was a very reasonable decision. "To be fair to the Lancet, they did publish a commentary at the time urging caution that wasn't picked up.

"I think the reality of the world today is that academic papers on major public health issues do not remain the property of academia. Therefore it is incumbent on us all in science, in journals and in the media to be very certain of the strength of a study before rushing to publish, and to be aware of the potential effects."



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